While it’s easy to get caught up in debates about aesthetic purity when it comes to punk music, it’s important to remember that, in the ’70s, embracing the punk lifestyle often came with a very real threat to life and limb. As director Rubika Shah‘s documentary White Riot unpacks in vivid detail, punks throughout Great Britain had to contend not only with disdain from society at large but, more insidiously, the growing tide of far-right fascist elements within their own ranks.
Shah, who somehow manages to capture the dreary, almost colorless landscape of England’s economic depression and imbue it with a sumptuous visual quality, quickly establishes the broader social and historical context for the ideological fault lines that were then starting to cause tremors in the punk community.
Shah, who also edited the film, trains her lens on the rise of the UK’s National Front party, a self-identifying fascist group that openly embraced Nazi-style rhetoric steeped in virulent xenophobia, racism, and homophobia. The film follows its main characters, the founders of the
Rock Against Racism organization (RAR), as they recollect waging a kind of counter-insurgency against the National Front. Using punk, reggae, word of mouth, and—crucially—the printing press as their weapons, RAR swept across the British Isles, swelling into a movement propelled on DIY ethics. At one particularly charming point in the film, RAR central staff member Kate “Irate Kate” Webb recalls a letter from an interested 14-year-old named Ted from the small English town of Bognor Regis.
“Dear Ted,” Webb wrote back, “there is no RAR [chapter] in Bognor Regis, but you are now [the head of] Bognor Regis RAR.”
As it turns out, RAR got off the ground as something of a fluke. Founder Red Saunders, a photographer who had been assigned by NME to photograph the punk phenomenon at live shows, was sufficiently galvanized by Eric Clapton’s infamous onstage anti-immigration rant at a show in Birmingham, England in 1976, where an inebriated Clapton reportedly made openly racist remarks. (Over the years, Rod Stewart, Morrissey and Roger Daltrey have expressed similar sentiments, though not necessarily as inflammatory in each case.) Saunders penned an open letter to Clapton challenging his racism and the music press ran with it.
To his surprise, the letter sparked an enthusiastic wave of support. Several of the film’s RAR interview subjects express how taken aback they were, but also how heartening it was for them to realize they’d tapped a nerve: the mailbags full of letters they received showed that a sizable swatch of the public sought to help combat the threat of a far-right extremist party that was gaining legitimate political traction.
That said, one of the things the film gets across so powerfully is how developed Saunders’ vision was, to say nothing of the RAR staff’s diligence in its execution of that vision. There’s a romance around punk zines, but RAR’s publication Temporary Hoarding, itself a kind of main character in the film, emulated the production values of a newspaper, even as it echoed the familiar DIY visual style. (You can think of it as an older cousin to, say, Adbusters.) Shah was so taken by Temporary Hoarding‘s look that she and her animation team went through great pains to craft sequences that create the sensation of flipping through the paper’s pages. Perhaps most inspiring of all, however, is the sheer collective pool of skillsets that the RAR group represented.
We can point to a multitude of ways the internet has made it possible for like-minded people to work together, but there’s something quite striking about watching the pre-internet RAR crew pooling their resources and putting sweat equity into their work. In that regard, White Riot forces the viewer to weigh the impacts that today’s widespread connectivity has had on social movements, for better and for worse.
White Riot trailer screengrab
Shah, who isn’t a musician, highlights the personalities of her subjects in ways that would likely have been overlooked by a more music-focused director with a personal investment in punk codes and dogma. Immediately, from the very first shot of Saunders walking up to his desk, a cup of tea in hand, Shah captures a tangible sense of the relationship each interview subject has with the physical space they’re being filmed in. And, though it’s probably not the first word that comes to mind when you think of the subject matter, White Riot stands out for how cozy it is to look at.
“We thought a lot about how we wanted to present the people in the film,” Shah explains over a trans-Atlantic call. “It was a bit of serendipity because we found the print shop [where the RAR staff published the paper]. We filmed people in different parts of the shop with different setups. We started to think ‘Oh, maybe we should have filmed Red there as well,’ but there was no way we were going to get another session with him because we’d already interviewed him like four or five times.
It all worked out fine, though, because quite often with these multi-protagonist stories, one person’s story will be always be a bit weightier. It’s just the way it is with storytelling. And his office is just brilliant.”
Though RAR was active from 1976 until 1982, Shah chose as the film’s emotional climax one of its most extraordinary achievements, the historic April 1978 protest march culminating with a joint RAR/Anti-Nazi League concert at London’s Victoria Park that featured X-Ray-Spex, Steel Pulse, the Tom Robinson Band and, of course, the Clash (whose iconic song “White Riot” the film draws its title from). The concert, the film reveals, could easily have turned into a disaster. Situated in what was then one of the National Front’s most popular districts, the site required the construction of a stage, as well as people to sleep on the stage at night to prevent vandalism. And when, for example, the organizers applied for a permit to hold the event at Victoria Park, they indicated that they expected a crowd of 500. In fact, 80,000 people showed up.
The Clash performing at the Rock Against Racism concert [trailer screengrab]
Watching footage of the bands play to a sea of human bodies is certainly rousing, but along the way Shah touches on several points with a rare mix of urgency and discretion. Figures like Adam Ant, Johnny Rotten, and Sham 69 frontman Jimmy Pursey, for example, occupied a more ambiguous place in the fabric of punk’s flirtations with fascism.
Music aficionados looking for a more in-depth analysis of how punk and reggae cross-bred to yield the likes of the Clash and the Police will have to approach White Riot as a jumping-off point. The same goes for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the South Asian and LGBT presence in punk. Likewise, though much of the discussion around White Riot has focused on its resonance with the present-day unrest rattling the UK, Europe, and the US, the film was completed prior to 2020, so it is perhaps for the best that viewers will be left to draw their own correlations.
Clearly, the hundreds of RAR-affiliated benefit shows that took place during the film’s timeline were pivotal in pairing black, white, and South Asian artists on the same stages, thus integrating audiences that might not have otherwise had much contact with one another. Shah avoids the temptation to overstate this, avoiding several pitfalls that would have befallen a more heavy-handed filmmaker.
Much of what lingers in the imagination after White Riot‘s credits roll appeals to the senses and to one’s basic curiosity, rather than to our modern-day appetite for ideologically rigid polemic. In more ways than one, White Riot delivers a welcome blast from the past.
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