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Review: White Riot (2019)

Director: | 80 minutes | , documentary, history | Featuring: Red Saunders, , , Pervez Bilgrami, Pauline Black, Ruth Gregory, , , , Mick Jones, , , , , Janet Street-Porter, , , , , Lucy Whitman

On August 5, 1976, Eric Clapton was in a sold-out arena in Birmingham and wrote history. Not because of a legendary performance of I Shot the Sheriff of White Room, but because of an extremely racist tirade in which he expressed support for extreme right MP Enoch Powell. He also asked whether there might be foreigners in the audience. If so? Then they had to leave. Not only from the audience, but also from the country. It should come as no surprise that the iconic guitarist regrets this hateful monologue years later (as can be seen in documentary “Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars”). As gruesome as it may be, his words – no doubt fueled by his alcohol addiction and all the problems associated with it – did help form RAR: Rock Against Racism. The horribly topical “White Riot” is about this protest movement.

Great Britain, late 1970s. Unemployment was high, according to many the blame was on immigrants. Creepily, Clapton wasn’t the only famous rock star to publicly make these hate speeches. David Bowie also indicated that England would benefit from a fascist leader. Rod Stewart felt that his country was exclusively for white people. Shocking, isn’t it? But filmmaker Rubikah Shah shows in “White Riot” with archival footage that racism was everywhere in those days. In TV series, on the street, it was almost like it was the norm. Racist attacks were so common that immigrants could no longer be sure of their lives.

Music photographer Red Saunders wrote a letter to magazines such as NME and Melody Maker in response to Clapton’s performance. In the letter he gave shape to the idea – which had been around for some time – to form a front against fascism and racism as rock fans. And so the RAR movement was born: local groups that released a fanzine (TempoRARy Hoarding). Slowly but surely, RAR gained a foothold among young people. When punk bands like The Clash and Steel Pulse joined in, things went fast.

As you would expect, “White Riot” offers many interviews, of course with founders Red Saunders, Roger Huddle, Pete Bruno and Jo Wreford, but also with artists such as Topper Headon from The Clash and Dennis Bovell from Matumbi. The archival footage of the concert on April 30, 1978 in Victoria Park is the icing on the cake. At this event, more than 100,000 anti-racism protesters marched across London, from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park, where they eventually attended a concert by The Clash, Steel Pulse and Tom Robinson Band, among others.

Shah has an extra asset with the energetic visual style that she uses. As an ode to the punk movement, with animated cut-out texts and slogans, she adds extra strength to the message. Love music. Hate Racism. The battle continues. “White Riot” is a must for anyone with an interest in history, politics and (punk) music.

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