WHITE RIOT

★★★★

A POWERFUL STORY OF ROCK VERSUS RACISM

THEATRICAL REVIEW
By Jake Watt
3rd March 2021

Until I watched director Rubika Shah's new documentary 'White Riot', I had no idea that Eric Clapton was once an avowed (rather than just a plain ol' complicit) racist.

In fact, I thought all those soulful white singers/rock 'n' rollers from England loved black men, especially those who gave birth to their beloved (and quite fruitful - especially for white men) rock music.

But, uh, not Eric Clapton.

The late 1970s in Great Britain saw the rise of both a neo-Nazi political party, The National Front, and Enoch Powell, first a Conservative Party Cabinet Minister then a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, who called for the deportation of all immigrants in Great Britain.

However, and even more unsettling for people involved in pop culture, were public statements by both Clapton and Rod Stewart supporting Powell's calls to send people of colour back to where they came from, declaring that Britain must stop itself from becoming a "black colony". It was the comments by these two establishment rock stars (and a trickle of others) which motivated the formation of the grassroots organisation, Rock Against Racism (RAR). "Bowie came up with a load of crap," one RAR founder remembers, when even The Thin White Duke started dabbling in far-right sentiment.

'WHITE RIOT' TRAILER

'White Riot' tells the story of how a group of determined - and angry - music lovers came together to form the nucleus of an organisation that helped build a grassroots network of people to combat the rise of the far right. But these folks didn't have cell phones or social media. They had to rely on armies of volunteers, flyers, and putting out fanzines about music and politics. Their cut and paste newspaper, 'Temporary Hoarding', had everything from interviews with The Clash and Poly Styrene (frontwoman for X-Ray Spex) to the latest rundown on what the National Front was up to.

It was an article written by one of their people which expressed outrage about Eric Clapton, referring to him as a cultural colonialist, that really got the ball rolling after it was picked up by the big music press in the UK. When people heard about it and RAR, they started sending donations and membership fees to the organisation's headquarters in exchange for pins and fanzines to show their support.

Taking its name from a Clash song, 'White Riot' shows how Jamaican, South East Asian, European kids, musicians, and people of all backgrounds and class - which in England was a big deal - came together to fight racism because a few people bothered to make a fuss.

The movie makes it clear this was a genuine DIY movement. It was people off the street, from the neighbourhood pub, and school kids who didn't like the messages of hate coming from politicians and musicians. They were answering the call of the Clash's song for all people to go into the streets to support the struggle for justice.

The movie makes it clear this was a genuine DIY movement. It was people off the street, from the neighbourhood pub, and school kids who didn't the like the messages of hate coming from politicians and musicians.

This was all occurring alongside the opening salvos of the punk revolution in London. RAR brought together a variety of musicians - not just punk, but also post-punk, reggae, and ska. Interviews from the 70s with people like Joe Strummer and Poly Styrene are mixed with contemporary interviews with Tom Robinson, Topper Headen from The Clash, Pauline Black from The Selector, and the only South-East Asian punk band at the time, Alien Kulture.

All of these bands, plus Steel Pulse, Gang of Four, Sham 69 and more, performed concerts at various times for RAR, but the biggest was in 1978. RAR organised a march that travelled from London's Trafalgar Square across the city to Victoria Park, the heartland of National Front support, where the bands would play. 100,000 people turned up for the march and the concert with buses travelling from as far away as Scotland.

Shah does an excellent job of keeping the inevitable animations to a discrete minimum, preferring to mix archival footage of the times and the bands with contemporary footage of the key people behind RAR to give us an immersive visual and musical picture of the times. From the head of London's metropolitan police force denying there are any organised groups behind the uptick in racist attacks to interviews with South Asian storekeepers talking about being beaten up by skinheads, we're given a clear picture of the uphill battle they were facing.

'White Riot' might be about events that took place 40-plus years ago in the United Kingdom, but everything described will sound eerily familiar to events that have been rumbling across the world recently. Its message of compassion and resistance makes it one of the most inspiring movies you'll see this year.

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