Rubika Shah’s timely documentary tells the story of the Rock Against Racism movement in 1970s Britain. As a time capsule it is fascinating and frightening. These were ‘dark and hard’ times in which the National Front ‘kicked their way into the headlines’ with their skinhead following and won votes with their promise to repatriate the ‘wogs’ and ‘coons.’ RAR began as an antidote to this ‘racist poison’ whose job was ‘to peel away the union jack and reveal the swastika.’
Film footage from the time seems like ancient history, but the historical echoes are hard to miss, with institutional police racism and brutality rife. Director Shah also nudges us to see explicit links between the NF and the Brexit movement. The inspiration for ‘Take Back Control’ sovereignty could be a banner seen behind the NF leaders: ‘IT’S OUR COUNTRY. LET’S WIN IT BACK’.
And looking at dough-faced Martin Webster and his awful goons, it’s hard not to think of our current shitshow of Leave-supporting loons. By contrast, the optimism and good humour of ordinary young music fans attending 1978’s ‘Carnival against the Nazis’ feels like a ray of sunshine, reminiscent of 2019’s EU marches.
Also uplifting in all this is the rebel music of the era and the courage of grassroots activists like RAR founders Red Saunders, Roger Huddle, Jo Wreford, Pete Bruno and others. In a world without social media, mobiles or computers a group of like-minded music fans managed to mobilise hundreds of thousands of other music fans against racism. They politicised the punk generation at a crucial time when many bands, such as Sham 69, had racist followers. As someone in the film says, ‘punk could have gone either way.’
Rock Against Racism was sparked by the anger felt by Saunders after Eric Clapton drunkenly pledged his support for Enoch Powell during a Birmingham concert in 1976. Also making fascist noises at the time: David Bowie and Rod Stewart. White Riot shows how, via a letter published in the NME, Saunders and co started a movement, organising multi-racial gigs in London which eventually spread nationwide. Sample slogan: Black and white unite and fight! They published a revolutionary fanzine, Temporary Hoardings, which ran for five years.
The film often adopts punk’s DIY cut-and-paste visual style, with rapid-fire collages of art, photos and clips. But it is a serious and sober documentary. It gave me the shivers, but not in the way I was hoping for. As a teenager who went to many RAR gigs in Cambridge (The Ruts, Misty in Roots, The Pop Group, Patrik Fitzgerald etc.) I expected spine-tingling concert footage, perhaps unearthed in recent years. But music-wise White Riot was something of a disappointment. This is probably down to licensing constraints. It felt like the usual suspects, clips we’ve all seen before in many music docs. The Clash and Jimmy Pursey doing White Riot at the 1978 Victoria Park carnival felt a bit panto at the time.
Perhaps, though, Rubika Shah’s film is right to downplay its musical content; RAR’s moral and political cause is more important here. Among the many talking heads is producer and musician Dennis Bovell, then member of reggae band Matumbi, who describes what it felt like to be black in London in the late 70s: ‘you were warned by your parents not to stay out after 10 o’clock. The police could arrest you for being black.’ He explained that he was imprisoned for 6 months in Wormwood Scrubs for a crime he did not commit. Black and Asian kids had to go to school in groups for fear of getting beaten up and spat at.
This was a time when some of mainstream British popular culture was overtly racist: The Black & White Minstrel Show and Love Thy Neighbour (‘a nig-nog moved in next door’) were on primetime telly. According to an inside source, ‘you wouldn’t believe the amount of senior policemen who support the National Front.’ No surprise, then, that there were riots in places like Lewisham when the NF tried to march through it and met with massive resistance. Red Saunders: ‘This was a gang of street thugs out to terrify you. The campaign was life and death for many people.’