In the mid-70’s the UK was in the midst of an existential crisis. Due to gross political mismanagement, unemployment skyrocketed and basic services disintegrated, leading to a society on the brink of fracture. Out of this turmoil a new vein of nationalism rose, which quickly coalesced around the National Front, a fascist political party with anti-immigration/racism as its calling card. (Sounds familiar, right?)
As the NF gained traction throughout the seventies, spurred on by a wave of immigration from South Asia, it gained some rather unexpected supporters: David Bowie, in the midst of his cocaine psychosis phase, called for a fascist leader, while throwing a Nazi salute from the roof of his limo; Rod Stewart supported the NF before fleeing England for Los Angeles; and most famously, Eric Clapton went on a tirade against “coons” and “wogs” during a show in Birmingham.
All this caught the attention of a group of politically motivated artists (Red Saunders, Roger Huddle, Jo Wreford, Pete Bruno), whose response was to start a grassroots organization out of the back of a print shop in 1976, with the goal of employing bands and music to help combat the ugly vitriol being spread by the NF. Rock Against Racism was born.
The DIY organization recruited a handful of hard working misfits, and was soon aligning itself with punk rock, another new consequence of England’s seething cultural divide; the spikey-haired lot would feature prominently at RAR events. During the ensuing years over 200 local affiliate groups sprang up throughout Britain, inspired partly by RARs fanzine, Temporary Hoarding, which included pieces on the new punk explosion, alongside those on police brutality, and the activities of the NF. The counter culture was rising.
White Riot, a documentary that chronicles the days in the life of Rock Against Racism in the late ’70s, is, after years of work, finally being released today (in virtual cinemas via Film Movement)—and it couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. The film is a brilliant look inside not just RAR, but the punk scene that surrounded it; it also delves deep into the insidiousness of the National Front. It concludes with the massive Victoria Park show in 1977 that drew over 80,000 supporters of the cause, and more than a few Clash fans we imagine, as Joe, Mick, Paul and Topper played an appropriately blistering set.
We caught up with British director Rubika Shah to chat about what it all meant.
White Riot started off as a short, and was a few years in the making, I think?
Actually, the idea for the project came about five years ago, and then it just ended up taking on the form of a short film, because that’s what we were able to get made first. It was just by coincidence, because as you know, a feature-length documentary takes a long time to make. The short ended up being quite an interesting way for us to try out a few different ideas in terms of the way we would tell the story. Because we didn’t want it to be like a straight archive doc, we wanted to try and do something a little bit different with it. (Incorporating animation for instance. – Ed.)
And I noticed there were some shots from the Clash film Rude Boy in it?
Yeah, so we used some archive footage from Rude Boy. I mean, we probably used a hundred different different sources. It comes from so many different places. But that stuff will always stick in our minds, because it’s just so musical, the way it was shot.
The live footage?
Yeah, the live stuff. There’s bits and pieces of it spread throughout the film, actually—like the Clash rehearsal. There’s the bit when they’re doing “Guttersnipe,” which is actually my favorite clip ever of The Clash, and that’s why we had to include it, or find a way of including it.
You didn’t grow up in that era, I’m guessing? You’re younger?
I grew up after the era, so I wasn’t there. I suppose I look at it maybe with a bit more nostalgia, in the sense that I’m looking for answers during that time; whereas people who were there at the time, they’ll have a different take on it. But the interesting thing is that when I’ve talked to people that have watched it that were there at the time, a lot of them say that we managed to capture the feeling of what it was like at quite an extreme, scary time. You don’t often see that in documentaries in the UK, for some reason.
It’s fascinating how thirty years after the Second World War and the supposed defeat of Nazism in Germany, fascist groups were rising up in England.
Yeah, it’s pretty mad. When you look at it in a cyclical way, what’s happening with the big push to more far right and conservative policy here in UK, and forty years before was Rock Against Racism. A lot of things happened in between as well. It’s quite hard to wrap your head around it, actually, because they were rebelling with punk against their parents; that was the whole thinking behind wearing the Nazi paraphernalia and stuff like that. But at the same time, I think at that moment, the far right were targeting young, working-class kids, which is the same sort of story we hear now about what’s happening. And Rock Against Racism came together and united people because they were now actually challenging the ideas behind the National Front and what they were saying.
Like how the Taliban recruit people, and ISIS. They reach out to disenfranchised kids who don’t seem to have a future. But the fact that Rock Against Racism immediately got such interest from young people, 14- and 15-year-olds all over the country, writing in letters and wanting to support. I can’t really see that happening these days, kids don’t get politically involved.
It was different, wasn’t it? Social media has changed things. There’s still a lot of people getting involved; in the UK, there’s something you may have heard of, Extinction Rebellion. It’s a big climate change movement and they basically have taken the ideas behind Rock Against Racism, but gone it one step further…and it’s more confrontational, actually. I guess that’s because they’re talking to government rather than going out on the streets fighting like a political party. They’re trying to change public policy on climate change.
How do you view what’s going on now in Britain and America, with the rise of these pro-fascist factions?
When we were making this film, Trump hadn’t been elected. So when he was elected, and then came the aftermath of the Brexit referendum…it’s all just like peeling off the plaster (bandage – Ed.) And then there was a spike in racism, just sort of some nasty nationalism that was unleashed. So yeah, our world doesn’t look good, to be honest.
So your reaction was to finish the film. Do you feel like it’s a bit of a protest statement?
It’s an interesting question, because when I’m making the film, I’m looking at it as like it’s a bit of a puzzle, like it needs to make sense, it needs to tell the story that I’m trying to set out to tell. So I guess it is, yeah, because it says something about our view, everybody that made the film, about what we think. I guess it is a statement.
And at the same time, you want to make it good entertainment, and you want to make it a piece of art that looks good, and sounds good.
Exactly, it’s exactly that. You don’t want it to get bogged down in politics, because you can just go to the telly and watch a political news doc. I guess one of the things that I’d like is for people get swept up in it, sort of get into it; and that’s why we cut it to shorter than a 90-minute film. It’s quite hasty and it moves quite fast. I tried to feel the rhythm of punk.