Film Review - White Riot
Updated: Apr 10, 2020
by Phil Butland
This is not, as the title suggests, a story of The Clash, although the band and the song feature prominently. It is a documentary history of the first year of Rock Against Racism (RAR), and is an impressive first full-length feature by director Rubika Shah.
Although the parallels with the present are transparent, Rock Against Racism emerged in very specific circumstances, both politically and culturally. The Labour government, under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, was implementing what we now know as austerity, and significant numbers of alienated unemployed young people were moving towards the Nazi National Front (NF).
This was not helped by the mainstream tv output. The film shows us black face, colonial racism, and a white man complaining about “nig-nog” neighbours, all from tv programmes shown in prime time. This was the tip of the iceberg (remember the language school set “comedy” Mind Your Language, whose only joke was that foreigners are funny?). Apologists may claim that these shows were just being ironic, but whatever their motivation, they ended up normalising racism.
It wasn’t just the media. The film is very hard on the role of the police, who were much keener to attack RAR demonstrations than the Nazis. Many police chiefs were NF sympathisers. As the Selecter’s Pauline Black explains, the experience of RAR brought home to many white people what black youth experienced on a daily basis. It also sensitised them to issues like Gay rights and the H Block protests in the North of Ireland.
The musical establishment was being overthrown by the frantic excitement of punk, and also by the development of reggae, with Bob Marley becoming the first international superstar from the Global South. The old guard were showing their political backwardness, with Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart supporting the racist Enoch Powell and even David Bowie saying that Britain could benefit from a Fascist government (I‘ve written more about this here and here).
Yet it would be wrong to say that punk was automatically a force for good. Roger Huddle, one of the founders of RAR is clear that it could have “gone either way“. For many punks, their music was just about rebelling against the old order, and icons like Sid Vicious and Siouxsie Sioux regularly wore swastikas. Bands like Sham 69 were RAR supporters, but they still attracted mobs of Sieg Heiling skinheads to their gigs (something which would also later happen to the anti-racist group Madness).
But then there were Tom Robinson and the Clash. Robinson is now a mainstream disk jockey (though he is briefly interviewed to show that he has lost none of his militancy) but at the time was best known for performing “Glad to be Gay” on Top of the Pops. There is also archive footage of Clash singer Joe Strummer explaining that if all their friends weren’t unemployed, maybe they’d be writing songs about love and kisses.
This is where RAR made a real difference. Firstly by its audacity in departing the safe refuges of the established left and approaching bands and their fans, encouraging them to put on anti-racist gigs. We see a series from letters from young people saying that they’d read about RAR in Socialist Worker or the Tom Robinson mailing list, and ordering badges, or 30 copies of the RAR fanzine Temporary Hoarding to sell to their friends.
A 14-year old in Bangor or somewhere asks where to find his local RAR group. He receives a reply in the return post saying “we don’t have a group in Bangor (or wherever) yet. You are now RAR Bangor. Here’s some information about how you can put on a gig". RAR empowered people who were affronted by racism and the growing Nazi threat to go out and do something about it.
Another founder of RAR, Red Saunders, explains how its aim was to “peel away the Union Jack to reveal the swastika“ and to separate the hard Nazis in the National Front from some of the soft supporters whose desperation meant that they saw easy answers in racist propaganda.
This is where people like Sham 69’s singer Jimmy Pursey were crucially important. Pursey was from the working class London district of Hersham and wrote songs like “Borstal Breakout”. He knew that his fan base were fed up of being preached to and would not react well to anyone telling them that racism was nasty.
RAR had long talks with Pursey about how to reach his audience. This meant inviting them to gigs (first rule: protect the stage. Second rule: if the Nazis take the stage, turn the speakers off), but also ensuring that Pursey made clear statements against racism. This strategy reached its peak where Pursey took the stage alongside reggae band Misty in Roots.
The film contains all the vitality and chaos of punk and the fanzines that emerged from it. While the archive footage is often blurry (and who’d have thought that so much film from the 1970s was still in black and white?) much of the post-production shows the creative innovation that came to the fore in publications like Temporary Hoarding.
The film lasts 80 minutes, and I’d have been happy if it were twice as long. For example, it would have been great to hear more about the difference between RAR and the Anti Nazi League (ANL). The two organisations worked together, but the specific role of the ANL in confronting the Nazis is sometimes hidden. And I’d have loved to see footage of the later RAR, orientated around the Specials and the 1981 anti-racist riots.
But this is splitting hairs a little (and who knows, if enough of us ask, maybe Shah will make a follow-up film). The film is what it is, and what it is is compelling. Although maybe it deserves a better audience. During the end credits, a caption says that the NF were soundly defeated in the 1979 election. The guy sat next to me said “Thatcher”. Now the causes for the defeat of the NF require a separate article, but at least one person just didn’t get what this film was trying to explain.
Without RAR and the ANL, the British elections would have been much worse than they were, and nearer to Tom Robinson’s prophesies in the apocalpytic “Winter of 1979”. Everyone concerned needs our deepest appreciation. And the best way we can show this appreciation is to carry on the fight. Following the end caption about the 1979 election we read “Racism and Fascism are still threats today”. Follow RAR's audacious lead and do something about it.
This review first appeared on the CinePhil Berliner film blog. Republished with permission