Adelaide Film Festival
Review by Sarah List
My film buddy and I had pretty much the same thought as we walked out of the cinema from White Riot – Why in 2020 are we still having the same conversations about racism, migrants threatening jobs, and poverty and marginalisation of youth. As bleak as the UK of the 1970s was, there are so many mirrored moments in recent years, that White Riot is both timely and deeply impactful now.
Largely chronicling the rise of the National Front (NF) political movement in the UK as a result of crippling unemployment and economic depression, White Riot captures the emergence of the counter movement Rock Against Racism (RAR), which paired white and black music acts to bridge cultural divides. Founded by Red Saunders in 1976 following a horrific racist tirade by Eric Clapton on stage, Saunders recognized this was a crucial time for music to be mobilized as a force for positivity and inclusion. At that time punk was the music of the disenfranchised, and was increasingly attracting neo nazis who were sympathetic to the NF’s cause. RAR recognized the importance of punk featuring in their events, as a direct connecting point with youth who may be at risk of slipping into the NF ranks. By recruiting the support of The Clash, XRAY Specs and Sham 69 amongst others to perform with non-white acts such as Steel Pulse and Misty in Roots, their events were hugely successful and fueled sales of their zine Temporary Hoarding which contained stories of political weight of the era.
White Riot is Rubika Shah’s first full length documentary and packs plenty of historical punch, with a hand cut design that captures well the grassroots zine and activism elements of this tumultuous period of history. The motivations and strategies of RAR are candid, and it was deeply moving to see the youth of the era responding and rising to the challenge of facing up to racism and the occasional brutality of the police at protest events. I would have liked to have had more insight into the motivations of the musicians involved – how they felt about being idolized by skinheads? Whether they would have fronted up to the issue without the involvement of RAR?
Gripping and highly relevant in these times – The UK feels like it has returned to square one in this Brexit era, but it also feels like it’s not alone this time with unrest in many other places with the same problems.