Building on her previous documentary short of the same name, Rubika Shah’s White Riot is an engaging and important study of Rock Against Racism, a movement formed in 1976 in response to the rising racism of the British political and social landscapes. In febrile times such as these, it’s difficult to imagine White Riot being any more relevant.
Talking heads and archival footage are the order of the day, while Shah lets the raging energy of its punk subject speak for itself. It would be easy for a film like this to feel self-righteous, but the time White Riot expends on Sham 69 and Jimmy Pursey’s involvement with RAR, despite their far-right following, is illustrative of the fact that nuance is never more needed than at times of polarisation. Even the film’s title reminds us that a hit song by an anti-fascist band could be adopted by the far-right.
Other than the obvious historical and musical context, perhaps White Riot’s most obvious counterpart is Shane Meadows’ 2007 film This is England, set a little later than White Riot but in a similar musical landscape and with the National Front on the rise in both periods. Indeed, the opening credits to Shah’s film overtly recall Meadows with her use of archival footage overlaid with The Clash’s ‘London Calling’. Indeed, White Riot’s subject may well be the politics and music of 1970s Britain, but like all good historical historical documentaries it is a warning – much like This is England’s 1980s National Front to the 2000s rise of the BNP – of the present racist ghouls currently haunting contemporary public life.
Shah, however, is less interested in the radicalisation of white working class youth into fascism, and more with the (mainly) London-based black communities harassed by the NF and the fascist rhetoric of Enoch Powell, the systematic racism of the police, and the musical movement that grew to combat them. Shah reminds us that with the benefit of hindsight it’s easy now to see obviously fascist organisations like the NF for what they were, and of course everyone remembers Sid Vicious’ notorious donning of a swastika.
Less well remembered, however, are Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart’s racist views, or David Bowie’s statement that Britain was ready for a fascist leader. Here, Shah shakes us out of our apathy to confront that comforting, dangerous feeling that when the weeds of fascism take root we will surely notice them and act. Ultimately, though, White Riot is a belligerently hopeful film: Shah vividly depicts the insidious violence of racism, but she also renders its futility in the face of community, and of music’s limitless power to unite and strengthen.
Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm