Film Movement Movie Review: White Riot (2019)

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Once upon a time, Eric Clapton lost his mind. Stopping a show in Birmingham to ask any "foreigners" in the audience to raise their hands, he told them he wanted them gone, not just from the concert but his country altogether. "I don't want you here," he shouted. "I think we should send them all back...We need to make clear to them they are not welcome. England is for white people, man … This is Great Britain, a white country!"

The year was 1976. As shocking as these words were back then and remain to this day, when it came to views like these, Eric Clapton was far from alone. Joined in supporting the new rise of fascism in the UK, David Bowie argued that Britain was ready for a fascist leader and called Adolf Hitler the first rock star in an interview with "Playboy." Following Clapton's lead, Rod Stewart went even further, giving a full-throated endorsement for racist National Front political party member Enoch Powell, saying that he too thought it was time for foreigners to leave. But this position wasn't just coming from those in rock. With punk taking over the music scene in Britain, The Sex Pistols, Adam Ant, and Siouxsie and the Banshees were just three punk groups who openly embraced Nazi symbolism and swastikas in their costumes and performances.

What the hell was going on, you might ask? The short answer is that in the mid to late '70s, England was rampant with anger and hate. Inundated with job loss and scapegoating the problems of the country on immigrant "invaders" with "black, brown, and yellow faces," as the National Front ranted in their rallies, Britain's tide was turning in a horrific direction. Watching this happen in real-time, rock photographer Red Saunders vowed to do whatever he could to stop the impending flood of xenophobia before it was too late.

Writing an open letter to Clapton, whose music, he rightfully charged, was cribbed directly from Black blues artists, Saunders sounded the alarm and offered a solution. "We want to organise a rank-and-file movement against the racist poison in rock music," he wrote. Leaving his contact information in the letter for interested parties, after his missive was printed in music publications across the UK, Saunders was overwhelmed by the response.

Joining forces with gifted graphic designers, writers, photographers, musicians, and artists, they formed the group Rock Against Racism to reach the youths of England in an attempt to educate the younger generation against propagandist hate. Hosting events where they purposely had Black and white bands playing back-to-back, the organization put on more than two hundred shows in its first year and created a fanzine called "Temporary Hoarding," which addressed the real-world problems of racist policing, the Catholic side of the North Ireland conflict, sexual violence, immigration, LGBT issues, and other topics which were ignored by the mainstream press.

Chronicling the legacy of the group while bringing issues of "Temporary Hoarding" bursting to life through vibrant animation (which filmmaker Rubika Shah acknowledges was inspired by the films of Brett Morgan, including "Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck"), "White Riot" is a lively time capsule of a fraught period in England made eerily prescient due to recent events.

Watching the arguments made by the National Front in the wake of MAGA, Trump, the murderous Nazi march on Charlottesville, police brutality and the Black Lives Matter protests, as well as the advent of increasing fascism around the globe, "White Riot" plays like one of the scariest horror films you'll see ahead of Halloween. From bullets in the mailbox to assaults against musicians and concertgoers to the open police support for the National Front and their policies, it's a harrowing document of a fraught era in British history and the brave artists, organizations, and youths who dared to join forces to put hate in its place.

Interviewing not only Red Saunders and his colleagues but also some of the musicians who played Rock Against Racism (or RAR) gigs, including The Tom Robinson Band and Alien Kulture, while Shah's film admittedly suffers from a lack of focus as it seems to adjust and expand its thesis every time a vital new issue is introduced, it's an urgent eye-opener, nonetheless. Releasing to virtual cinemas from Film Movement ahead of the U.S. election, it's sure to inspire viewers to get involved, stay involved, and – here in the states, at least – vote.

Featuring amazing archival interviews, photos, and concert footage with bands including The Clash, Sham 69, Matumbi, Steel Pulse, X-Ray Spex, and more, "White Riot," which gets its name from a widely misunderstood Clash song off their first album, is of particular interest to UK music fans. Celebrating the grassroots movement that started in an east London print shop and exploded into a legendary carnival so important that The Clash swallowed their egos and played second to last before event headliner Tom Robinson (who'd been with RAR from the very beginning), the debut feature from Shah promises great filmmaking from the documentarian to come.

Clocking in at a mere eighty minutes, "White Riot," is the film equivalent of a punk song. Frenetically edited, it hits its thematic chords hard to drive home the message, ensuring that, unlike Clapton's "I Shot the Sheriff," this is one refrain you'll be glad to get stuck in your head long after it’s done.

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