White Riot is screening in UK cinemas.

The much-missed socialist writer (and GP) David Widgery once described Rock Against Racism as “a way of having a revolution without stopping the party”. Concerned by the growing popularity of the National Front and galvanised by Eric Clapton’s on-stage support for the reactionary politician Enoch Powell, a group of young Londoners wrote to the New Musical Express in 1976 urging its readers to join a “rank and file movement against the racist poison in rock music”. That’s exactly what happened: rejecting the nihilist postures of punk, bands toured the country chanting down Babylon, and radical politics found an insurgent soundtrack.

White Riot takes its name from a song by The Clash who, while less central to RAR than the likes of The Ruts, Steel Pulse and The Tom Robinson Band, performed at a famous open-air show in Hackney in 1978. However, Rubika Shah’s timely documentary suggests that art was as critical as music to the success of the movement. Many of the key figures were graphic designers, printers, photographers. Their agitprop aesthetic, a medley of ransom notes, ripped-and-torn montage and Gestetner experiments, translated vividly to posters and badges, as well as to the pages of the poster-magazine they founded, Temporary Hoarding.

All stories have back stories. All uprisings have rich ancestries. The activists who founded RAR had rebellion in their blood: Red Saunders was brought up in Nigeria. Kate Webb’s father had reported on the Prague Spring in 1968 and her mother had been involved in the American Civil Rights movement. Ruth Gregory’s mother was a suffragette; she herself, as a young girl in Australia, had seen at first hand the apartheid faced by Aborigines. In turn, though Shah doesn’t pursue this, their work inspired musicians and activists around the world over the following decades.

White Riot (2019)

Some of the ground Shah’s punchy and narrator-less film covers is well known. There are skinheads crying “Skeeenheads!”, Enoch Powell telling an interviewer that the UK is set to become “a colony within ten years”, Sid Vicious and Siouxsie (later of the Banshees) sporting bourgeoisie-baiting swastikas. Saunders, still feisty, recalls a bullet he received in the post and pouring sand on the floor of RAR’s office in case petrol was poured through the letterbox.

In 1977 Bob Marley had released a single entitled Punky Reggae Party. (According to the lyrics, “Wailers will still be there / The Jam, The Damned, The Clash / Wailers still be there / Dr Feelgood too / No boring old farts”.) RAR gigs tried to deliver on that promise, famously having reggae and punk acts share the bill – and sometimes the stage. The focus was on connection and inclusion. RAR was a network that itself emerged from networks championing squatting, feminism, Irish independence. Writer and editor Lucy Whitman (better known as Lucy Toothpaste) offers valuable context when she remembers how she ensured Temporary Hoarding gave coverage to lesbianism and rape survivor testimonies.

Much of RAR’s archive was lost after an arson attack destroyed Saunders’s photographic studio in 1993. Shah has nonetheless managed to unearth rare and valuable material: black-and-white footage of Saunders, looking like a more musclebound version of the musician Moondog, from his time in the radical theatre group Kartoon Klowns; grotesque effigies of NF leaders John Tyndall and Martin Webster made by Fluck and Law (the puppeteers who went on to create ITV’s Spitting Image series); delightful interviews with members of SKAN (School Kids Against the Nazis) who chant in barely broken voices, “We are black / We are white / We are dynamite.”

White Riot was made well before the anti-racist protests triggered by the murder of George Floyd, but it’s hard not to detect resonances between the tumults it depicts and those that have taken place in early summer 2020. There are shots of police holding demonstrators in choke-locks. Testimony (some of it from reggae producer Dennis Bovell) of Black youths being fitted up by the Met. A secret recording of Webster thanking South London police for the protection they offered the National Front at a deliberately provocative rally it staged in Lewisham.

The Clash’s Mick Jones on stage at Victoria Park, London

The film ends with stirring footage of The Clash performing at Victoria Park in Hackney. The National Front, the end titles announce, was defeated in the 1979 elections. Was Rock Against Racism responsible? There’s no mention of Margaret Thatcher who, in a famous 1978 interview, dog-whistled about British culture being “swamped by people with a different culture”; the National Front’s standing in the polls shrank immediately, as would-be voters accepted the Tory embrace. Other elements of the RAR story are ignored or touched upon only briefly: its internal politics, its tetchy relationship with the Anti-Nazi League, its lack of prominent Black or Asian organisers.

Good documentaries are never the final word. They’re stories that create a hunger for more stories. It’s a tribute to the fire and ferment of Rock Against Racism, and to Shah’s infectious passion for her subject, that White Riot feels at least half an hour too short.

Originally published: 17 September 2020