★★★★½ - STUFF
- White Riot: Doco revisits '70s British race relations in vivid, vitriolic detail -
“When all the gay geezers got put inside
And coloured kids was getting crucified
A few fought back and a few folks died
In the winter of '79”
Tom Robinson’s chilling visions of Britain under a National Front-influenced government feel almost as hauntingly relevant today as they did more than four decades ago.
Recent scenes of clashes between London Black Lives Matters protestors and far-right groups must have evoked strong memories for the members of Rock Against Racism interviewed for this cleverly crafted and compelling documentary.
Beefed-up from a 2017 short, Rubika Shah’s feature-length debut is an engaging and eye-opening look at how a group of like-minded individuals went from producing an underground fanzine to helping organise an 80,000 strong march and concert (April 1978's Carnival Against the Nazis), which arguably turned the tide of the 1979 British General Election.
Outraged by the vocal support of popular musicians Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart for the anti-immigration rhetoric of politicians like Enoch Powell, Red Saunders and others formed Rock Against Racism, which in turn launched Temporary Hoarding, a magazine aimed at celebrating “rebel music, crisis music – music that knows who the real enemy is”.
Targeting “all-round family British racism” rather than just the angry, vitriolic Front, their argument was that it was a “white problem”. “We were aiming to peel away the Union Jack to reveal the Swastika,” Saunders says.
Remember, this was a time when the UK’s television schedule was filled with such “enlightened” fare as It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, The Black and White Minstrel Show and Love Thy Neighbour and police officers routinely arrested black citizens for simply “loitering”. It was also, like now, a period when the economic situation was dire and the nation’s mood was “really dark and bad”. Fear and uncertainty were fuelling xenophobia and hatred, passions stoked to a frenzy by agitators for the Front.
White Riot brings it all to visceral, vivid and vitriolic life, mixing archival footage and stunning stills with modern day interviews and low-key animation to create an audio-visual montage that feels like the lovingly pasted-together scrappy pages of Temporary Hoarding. As well as noticing the parallels between then and now, you’ll also marvel at the group’s tenacity and innovation in a time before either mobile phones or social media – and their defiance in the face of firebombs and bullets in the mail.
Arriving with near perfect timing, White Riot is a powerful, persuasive look at a group of people who, rather than being superheroes, were simply “ordinary, anti-racist citizens”.
- James Croot, STUFF
White Riot has preview screenings this weekend before opening on 02 July at Light House Cuba