Documentary Review: Remembering when British music turned Anti-racist/Antifa–“White Riot”

Remember that time Eric Clapton got up on stage and snapped “Get the wogs out, get the coons out” of his native Britain?

That time David Bowie said “Britain is ready for a fascist leader?”

“Good old days,” right?

Adam Ant using Nazi agitprop to launch his career. Clapton and Rod Stewart singing the praises of the white supremacist/Nazi “National Front,” a fringe political party that threatened to go mainstream before Thatcherism turned Britain hard right without the spoken-out-loud bigotry.

“White Riot” is a documentary trip down a dark corner of Britain’s Memory Lane, the country’s mid-70s flirtation with racist fascism, and the small “underground” group, Rock Against Racism, that used a fanzine, effective labeling, activist concerts and protest marches to stem the tide at a time when punk ruled, and punk, beloved by skinheads of all stripes, could “go either way.”

It was the brainchild of Red Saunders. He was then a colorful fringe figure from the music industry who saw what was happening, and after stirring up a stink with an eviscerating “open letter” to Clapton, King of the Rock’s Cultural Appropriators and “rock’s biggest colonialist,” a letter than ran in ALL the popular music mags, started the ball rolling to enlist musicians and their fans to fight back.

Rubika Shah’s documentary uses extensive archival footage, everything from concerts and protest marches that turned into near-riots when racists and anti-racists met, to vintage interviews in which stars of the day let everybody know, as the old song Pete Seeger made famous, “Which Side Are You On?”

“White Riot” takes its name from a song by The Clash, the most prominent group to align itself with “RAR,” as its organizers called Rock Against Racism. But before The Clash came along, performers and fans were figuring out that Britain had a problem.

Britain’s post-colonialist/post-war history of bringing in “foreigners” from its colonies had reshaped the country, and re-colored it. A nation whose entertainers were still making racist cracks in sitcoms and still putting on blackface for song and dance numbers well into the ’70s was ripe the rise of the National Front.

Saunders and associates like “Irate” Kate Webb talk about freeing skinheads from the NF, about turning punk away from its skinhead/nationalist-fascist street-fighter roots.

“Our job was to peel away the Union Jack to reveal the swastika underneath,” Saunders says.

With no money, and rarely having big name musician to headline their shows (Steel Pulse, 999, SHAM 69, X-Ray Spex), with a magazine that looked pieced together in someone’s garage (because it was), Rock Against Racism became the button many a kid wanted on her or his denim concert-going jacket.

There’s little nostalgia from the fresh interviews collected here, and plenty of fire in the vintage ones. Kids complaining about racist National Front-sympathizing police, everyday bullying that could be life-threatening — the footage may look dated, but the message — delivered in print, on buttons, in punk and reggae songs — feels as current as “the latest news from the BBC.”

MPAA Rating: unrated, street violence, profanity

Cast: Red Saunders, “Irate” Kate Webb, Pauline Black, Myataell Riley, Pervez Bilgrami, Joe Strummer and Tom Robinson

Credits: Directed by Rubika Shah, script by Ed Gibbs, Rubika Shah. A Film Movement+ release.

Running time: 1:24

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