White Riot

****1/2

Reviewed by: Sunil Chauhan

White Riot
"White Riot is as brisk, to the point and direct as any punk song of the period." | Photo: Courtesy of London Film Festival

"We peeled away the Union Jack to reveal the swastika," says Red Saunders, founder of punk-era protest outfit Rock Against Racism.

Rubikah Shah’s debut feature itself tears into the seeds of the movement, charting its history at a point when – as its end credits write – the far right that the RAR fought against is in the ascent again. But White Riot doesn’t make explicit BlacKkKlansman-style parallels between the present moment and historical echoes. It doesn’t need to. Shah gets us to understand RAR members’ motivation for starting the organisation in a way that makes its relevance to current debates uncanny.

As we trace RAR’s rise from a fanzine to its organisation of an all-star gig in Victoria Park featuring X-Ray Spex, Steel Pulse, The Clash and the Tom Robinson Band, the concert is seen to not only capture political schisms at the heart of punk, but common British attitudes of the time.

Using new interviews with RAR staff, musicians like The Clash’s Paul Simenon and savvy splicing of archive interview footage, Shah skilfully paints a portrait of the era RAR emerged from. She moves from street protests and racist attacks to outbursts from musicians like Eric Clapton and David Bowie and the swastika-emblazoned outfits of punks like Sid Vicious.

Such support – whether aesthetic or ideological – of the far right is questioned here, with the hesitance of Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey in taking a stance that might alienate right-leaning fans a source of dramatic conflict. Shah also features interviews with Asian punk band Alien Kulture, providing a viewpoint often omitted from punk histories.

She doesn’t tolerate empty space – White Riot is as brisk, to the point and direct as any punk song of the period. Wasting no time as it makes its points with punchy clarity, it makes for a viewing experience that’s not only energetic but hugely energising: a blazing call to action that - unless you’re an admirer of messrs Robinson or Farage - engenders righteous passion. White Riot will make you feel alive with political possibility.

Reviewed on: 10 Dec 2019
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Profiling punk reggae protest movement Rock Against Racism.

Director: Rubika Shah

Writer: Ed Gibbs, Rubika Shah

Year: 2019

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: UK


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