Saturday 19 September 2020

If the kids are united: "White Riot"

Here's a timely one. With White Riot, the documentarist Rubika Shah gives us a potted history of the origins of Rock Against Racism, the organisation launched in 1976 by photographer and performance artist Red Saunders as a response to the massing ranks of the National Front (then under the jowly stewardship of Martin Webster) and those variously addled elements within rock - the increasingly uncool Clapton, yes, but also Bowie and Rod Stewart - who'd started flirting with the rhetoric and imagery of the lunatic fringe. Shah's history leans heavily on interviews with RAR's (predominantly white) founder members, several of whom recall childhoods in the colonies, and seeing racism close-up at a formative age; what the film proposes is that the 1970s saw an especially noisy outbreak of the same unresolved issues around Empire the once-United Kingdom is still working through almost a half-century later. Their accounts are reinforced by testimony from those musicians who subsequently stuck out their necks in support of RAR's aims: a rainbow coalition that encompasses The Clash's Topper Headon, representatives of both legendary reggae outfit Steel Pulse and all-Asian rockers Alien Kulture, Pauline Black from The Selecter and the white, bisexual Tom Robinson, given pause to reflect on how this motley crew (plus roadcrew) effectively invented intersectionality before it became a leftist ideal.

So the film has a stance, and some damn good tunes to revisit - how does it translate this story into images? Pretty well, it turns out. 1976 was just pre-video, so Shah has had to rummage through the archives and fall back on (in places, slightly familiar) news footage to describe the trouble breaking out on Britain's streets, but she has an ace up her sleeve in a selection of striking photographs, taken by Saunders and others, that cut through any historical distance and capture the essence of an especially lively, often outright turbulent moment. That moment was one in which the nation's youth were trying on identities for size, and Shah invites us to see Rock Against Racism as a gang of sorts in itself, with its own shared views and interests, a friendly rival in the emergent Anti-Nazi League, often violent enemies (NF skinheads, the police) and its own inhouse newsletter in TempoRARy Hoarding, cobbled together in the manner of punk's DIY fanzines, with typography and content that clearly drew on and fed into the irreverent music press of the time. Shah's own approach is rather fanzine-like: she patches her material together with modest resources but plentiful energy, while remaining aware certain images here should stick in the viewer's craw. More than once, White Riot reminded me just how virulent, how unabashed Seventies racism was - how it became a badge its viler proponents could pin to their lapel and identify one another by. And yet this doesn't seem so different from the state of play in late 2020; the insinuation is that we've spent forty years hiding or institutionalising such prejudices, attempting to make them respectable. As UKIP absorbed the BNP vote, so too the Conservatives consolidated their power by swallowing the UKIP vote more or less whole. "Our job was peeling away the Union Jack to reveal the swastika underneath," Saunders suggests; after a decade of Downton and Brand Britain buoyancy, it would appear some of the adhesive is once more wearing off.

A caveat: this fanzine is missing a few pages from its back end. White Riot concludes on a not unearned upnote, with joyous, understandably irresistible colour footage of the RAR-organised Carnival Against The Nazis - held in London's Victoria Park in 1978 before a crowd of thousands, with headliners The Clash joined on stage by Sham 69 frontman Jimmy Pursey for a performance of the titular showstopper - and a closing graphic pointing out the National Front were routed at the ballot box in the following year's election. Yet this was surely in part because the hard and/or posturing right had a new blonde pin-up to vote for; there's another half-hour, and quite possibly another film, in how RAR (which continued until 1982) adapted to the challenges of Thatcher's Britain, and how its activities fuelled the later activism of Red Wedge and Love Music Hate Racism. (It's that rarest of releases: a film that feels too short for its own good.) That this especially evocative snapshot emerges as no exercise in cosy nostalgia is Shah's achievement here; that's attributable to the unnerving proximity of its words and pictures to where we are today. All the conditions would now appear in place for some kind of Rock Against Racism revival - except, maybe, the music, which (with a very small handful of honourable exceptions) submitted to corporate control sometime towards the end of the last century, and has consequently wound up almost entirely depoliticised. The hope is that Shah's film can inspire musos who've been twiddling their thumbs during lockdown to come up with music and lyrics worthy of this critical moment, that envision some urgently sought forward path.

White Riot is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.

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