Music and Protest

Music and Protest

A vibrant and vital debut feature documentary, Rubika Shah’s White Riot takes us back to the 1970s for a story that feels utterly relevant to now. Winner of the Grierson Trust Best Documentary Award at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival and a Special Mention for the Crystal Bear at the Berlinale, there’s every chance of it picking up further awards in the coming year.

What unfolds is the story of ‘Rock Against Racism’, a British-born movement that was designed to combat the white supremacist hatred brewing with the National Front in the mid-1970s. As Shah depicts, back then, there were high-profile figures spouting disturbing rhetoric – even David Bowie adopted a fascist alter-ego in his Thin White Duke period.

Against this, the music-led Rock Against Racism came to the fore. If you’ve ever wondered how anyone organised anything before the days of the internet, social media and mobile phones, then Shah’s film offers a delicious peak into the analogue world – where telephone boxes (remember those?), printed flyers and the hand-drawn ’zine ‘Temporary Hoarding’ became the lifeblood used to channel RAR’s grass-roots message.

Fresh interviews with founding members, including the hugely engaging Red Saunders, provide the context here, but where Shah and her editor really bring the film alive is in the tremendously vivid use of archive footage. As a result, it never feels like a nostalgic look back to the 1970s, with the film winding towards a perfectly-chosen denouement – the gig, held on April 30 1978, at London’s Victoria Park, where The Clash, X-Ray Spex, The Tom Robinson Band and others performed an open-air concert.

That day, 100,000 people marched six miles from Trafalgar Square, and Shah unearths some superb footage of the concert, particularly The Clash’s electric performance of the track that provides the film with its title. Among those she gets on camera to speak about the day are Tom Robinson and The Clash’s Paul Simonon, fitting in seamlessly with the lesser-known people that feature in the film.

Shah, who previously launched her career with Let’s Dance: Bowie Down Under, a short about the iconic singer’s links to Australia, is evidently a passionate music fan. But more than this, White Riot shows just how vital protest movements are. And crucially she acknowledges that – something that’s become apparent with Black Lives Matter – racism was not defeated back in the late 1970s. To borrow from the cautionary end caption: “The fight goes on.”

White Riot is in cinemas on 18 September. For more details, click here.

James Mottram