'White Riot': Film Review | London 2019

Courtesy of Sundance
An engaging historical story with timely contemporary echoes.

Rubika Shah's prizewinning documentary commemorates the movement that put anti-racist politics at the heart of punk rock.

In August 1976, rock superstar Eric Clapton had a notorious onstage meltdown in Birmingham, England, drunkenly declaring his support for the anti-immigration politician Enoch Powell and warning that Britain was in danger of becoming a "black colony." Nowadays such an outburst might have triggered a career-killing social media storm. Back in the pre-Internet era, with casual racism rife in British society, the effect was more muted. But Clapton's rancorous tirade was not without consequence, directly inspiring the formation of Rock Against Racism, the short-lived but highly effective movement memorialized in Rubika Shah's lively documentary, White Riot.

In her debut feature, Shah, a young British director whose shorts have screened at Sundance, Tribeca, Hot Docs, Berlin and other festivals, expands on her 2017 short White Riot: London. Blending contemporary interviews with archive material and animated graphics, it chronicles the birth and early years of RAR, blossoming from a handful of like-minded political activists in an East London print shop to a nationwide movement capable of organizing huge street demonstrations and rock concerts. After winning the main documentary prize at the BFI London Film Festival last month, White Riot should have enough positive buzz and timely resonance to grab more festival slots, with solid credentials for big- or small-screen interest.

Back in 1976, the bitter irony of a "colonialist" rocker like Clapton, who built his career on African American blues music, openly expressing racist views was not lost on photographer and theater performer Red Saunders. White Riot chronicles how Saunders and his small team of mostly white left-wing hippie types created RAR to fight back against the rise of far-right extremism in late 1970s Britain, when thuggish political parties like the National Front were on the rise and inflammatory Nazi imagery was creeping into punk rock. “Our job,” Saunders tells Shah, “was to peel away the Union Jack to reveal the swastika.”

White Riot climaxes with RAR's landmark Carnival Against the Nazis in April 1978, which saw 100,000 people march across London before attending an outdoor  festival in Victoria Park headlined by punk rockers The Clash, reggae icons Steel Pulse and polemical singer-songwriter Tom Robinson. Besides Saunders and his comrades, Shah interviews musicians including Pauline Black of multiracial ska outfit The Selecter, pioneering dub reggae producer Dennis Bovell, and Steel Pulse singer Mykaell Riley, who recalls his mixed feelings on hearing thousands of fans cheering when his all-black band donned Ku Klux Klan hoods onstage. Other key players in this story, including the late Clash singer Joe Strummer, have their say in archive clips.

Taking her visual cues from Temporary Hoarding, RAR's self-produced punk fanzine, Shah assembles White Riot with a self-consciously lo-fi DIY aesthetic well suited to the film's fast-cut collage of scratchy vintage news footage, raw musical performances and artfully animated graphics. To convey their political messages, Saunders and his team understood the importance of strong visual branding through striking designs for posters, badges and banners.

Shah ends White Riot with familiar footage of The Clash performing at the 1978 carnival in Victoria Park, which guarantees an energetic finale but feels a little too abrupt. After all, RAR continued for another four years, with later shows featuring Elvis Costello, The Band, Pete Townshend of The Who and other big names. The movement also spread as far as Australia and South Africa, with affiliate branches in New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

White Riot is a timely, engaging exercise in social and cultural history, but a wider focus might have given it deeper context and broader marketability. With right-wing populist movements again on the rise, from Brexit Britain to Trump and beyond, and RAR-inspired campaigns like Love Music Hate Racism springing up in recent years, Shah could have ended this historical story on a more urgent contemporary note. The background music may change, but the song remains the same.

Venue: London Film Festival

Production company: Smoking Bear

Cast: Red Saunders, Roger Huddle, Lucy Whitman, Kate Webb, Topper Headon, Pauline Black, Mykaell Riley, Tom Robinson, Dennis Bovell, Joe Strummer, Poly Styrene

Director-editor: Rubika Shah

Screenwriters: Rubika Shah, Ed Gibbs

Producer: Ed Gibbs

Cinematographer: Susanne Salavati

Music: Aisling Brouwer

Sales company: Visit Films, Brooklyn, NY

80 minutes