White Riot

 

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A history lesson in which music plays a special part.

 
White Riot
 

An immense number of documentaries tackle political and social issues and it is no less the case that pop music and artists associated with it have frequently been made the subject of feature films. It is, however, unusual to have a film which brings the two together which is what happens in Rubika Shah's White Riot. In fact it's a natural fit because this film, set in 1977 and 1978, details the history of the activist group Rock Against Racism (RAR) which was founded by Red Saunders. He is central here as he and others involved look back on the history of RAR which came about as a reaction against the National Front and the racist rhetoric of Enoch Powell. It was a practical gesture spurred on by the need to challenge the support for them which had been expressed by the singer and guitarist Eric Clapton.

 

Save for simple direct contributions from Saunders and such figures as Kate Webb, Dennis Bovell and Pauline Black, White Riot (the title taken from a song by The Clash featured at the end of the film) is largely dependent for its effect on a telling assemblage of footage from the 1970s. That being so, it is entirely fitting that Shah is also the editor here. Those who lived through that period will find themselves taken back in time and those eager to be reminded of the music of the period will not feel let down (the movie's climax is a shatteringly successful concert put on by RAR in London's Victoria Park in 1978 to conclude a march that had begun in Trafalgar Square and it featured musicians such as The Clash, Steel Pulse and Tom Robinson).

 

That element is not undersold in White Riot, but audiences who do not necessarily care for the music will respond favourably too since they will find that the heart of the film lies in its vivid depiction of the social issues of the era. Scenes of a National Front rally in Lewisham along with footage showing police brutality as experienced by black youths and others horrify in themselves but also alarmingly carry a contemporary edge (that's especially so if one makes comparisons with racist attitudes on display in America today). Quite aptly White Riot considers the events of the late 1970s in a broad context of oppression and Saunders describes the aim of RAR as being to peel the Union Jack to reveal the swastika. It was central to their policy to promote unity by inviting black and white bands to play in the same gig and, given the divisions encouraged by politicians today, it is worth underlining what stands out as the key message of White Riot. It's a film which urges ordinary people to believe that they can make a difference in spite of the powerful who put their own interests first and it accordingly asks black and white to unite and to fight them together.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Red Saunders, Kate Webb, Dennis Bovell, Mykaell Riley, Pauline Black, Pervez Bilgrani, Ruth Gregory, Topper Headon, David Hinds, Roger Huddle, Syd Shelton, Tom Robinson.

 

Dir Rubika Shah, Pro Ed Gibbs, Ph Susanne Salavati, Ed Rubika Shah, Music Aisling Brouwer.

 

Creative England/Visit Films/Smoking Bear-Modern Films.
80 mins. UK. 2019. Rel: 18 September 2020. Available in cinemas. Cert. 15.