Punk rock met political activism when Rock Against Racism rose up in Britain, pushing back at the rise of racism, xenophobia, and the far-right National Front movement in the 1970s. It might seem like ancient history but in Rubika Shah’s electrifying 2019 documentary, an organization defunct since the early 1980s feels more vital than ever. In our own age of creeping fascism, it imparts lessons about pushing back against the darkness.
The film takes its name from the first single by The Clash, a song that some in the National Front might’ve thought was directed toward them but was, in fact, the opposite. It was the band’s call to disaffected white youth to join in the struggle against the ruling class and against organizations like the National Front. The Queen might have been celebrating her Silver Jubilee (“commemorated” by The Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” “the fascist regime… there is no future England’s dreaming”) but in addition to fascists on the march, the economy was in tatters and Thatcherism was waiting in the wings.
And over in the entertainment arena, David Bowie was expressing admiration for fascism, Rod Stewart was making xenophobic pronouncements, and Eric Clapton had his infamous racist rant in 1976 from the stage at a Birmingham concert. The latter was one of the events that galvanized Rock Against Racism (RAR), like White Riot, a push back to an ugly rising tide.
Shah’s documentary relates this history, one that is both political and musical. In those pre-internet days, RAR got its message out the old-fashioned way with flyers adorning walls and lamp posts, a PO box where people could write for information and request RAR badges, and a zine, Temporary Hoardings. The organization worked with bands like The Clash and The Tom Robinson Band in putting on shows. The film works within a timeline, liming the history leading up the forming of RAR and climaxing with an April 1978 London march that attracted 100,000 people and ended with a concert at Victoria Park that featured the aforementioned bands, the reggae band Steel Pulse, X-Ray Spex, and more. Even from the viewpoint of over 40 years, the march and the show footage is thrilling, encapsulating what RAR stood for in a visceral, irresistible way.
As perhaps inevitable with an organization founded by artists of various stripes, RAR produced a lot of vibrant, visual material. Shah makes grand use of that and other archival materials, bringing history to life. To that, she adds new interviews with Red Saunders, Roger Huddle, and others among RAR’s cofounders and collaborators and with musicians that include Clash drummer Topper Headon, Tom Robinson, singer Pauline Black of the ska group The Selector, Steel Pulse percussionist Mykael S. Riley, and guitarist Dennis Bovell of the reggae band Matumbi. The memories are as vivid as the concert footage and RAR recalling a past that still seems present.
Taking a cue from RAR’s visual style in Temporary Hoardings and posters, Shah uses bold graphic designs to frame, bridge and animate sections of the documentary, adding a strong sense of immediacy. History is not dead in her telling, but part of a continuum and what transpired four decades ago impacts our lives even now. Like The Clash song that inspired its title, White Riot is in its own way a siren song, a call to get involved against our own era’s far-right lurch.