REVIEW

White Riot brilliantly evokes a time when rock 'n' roll was shot through with racism

White Riot (MA, 80 minutes)

Four stars

I was only a kid when the action depicted in the documentary White Riot took place, and though I remember some of the now-archival footage it shares when it was fresh and live news on the telly in the late 1970s, I found most of this modern history to be shocking, an outrage frankly, some 40-plus years later.

Music luminaries of the day were perfectly comfortable making public statements in the media in support of the National Front.

Fans at some show put on by Rock Against Racism. Photo featured in White Riot. Picture: Syd Shelton

Fans at some show put on by Rock Against Racism. Photo featured in White Riot. Picture: Syd Shelton

Rubikah Shah's brilliant doco starts off with a surprising piece of pop music trivia that I was completely unaware of. In Britain in the late 1970s, a political party, Enoch Powell's The National Front, was grabbing headlines and building a supporter base with race-baiting anti-immigrant and xenophobic doctrine, and with some big names willing to openly support them in the media.

Music luminaries of the day were perfectly comfortable making public statements in the media in support of the National Front. Both Rod Stewart and David Bowie came out as pro-Enoch Powell. To a crowd at a concert in Birmingham, Eric Clapton had a foul-mouthed racist rant that began with the question "Do we have any foreigners in the audience tonight? If so, please put up your hands," he said, adding "I think you should all just leave. Not just leave the hall, leave our country ... I don't want you here, in the room or in my country."

It gets much worse. But Clapton's rant was a catalyst for some sensible fed-up folks to get together at their local pub and start a movement in response. They wrote a simple manifesto that included "We want to organise a rank and file movement against the racist poison in music", and so Rock Against Racism was born.

Through archival footage and talking head interviews, filmmaker Shah composes a brilliant expose of the everyday men and women, some musicians, some graphic artists and designers, who had had enough, who organised, and whose actions probably played a hand in the demise of the National Front.

At the heart of the movement and of Shah's film is Red Saunders, a photographer who had seen an early performance by The Clash and talks of their energy and lyrics of youth employment and alienation. He was so fired up on hearing about the Clapton rant that he wrote a piece that ran in a music magazine and drew hundreds of responses.

The folk he collected around him, and we meet them in the doco as folk in their 60s and 70s, included graphic artist Ruth Green whose graphic sensibility stood behind the Rock Against Racism movement's zine "Temporary Hoarding".

Young people studying art, fashion or graphic design should make this film essential viewing - Green's aesthetic laid out in the pages of their zine underpinned what we understand today as punk, and continues to be emulated and plagiarised.

Shah deftly manages to pack so much social history into her film with a beautiful flow to the editing, and with animation and image overlay drawing from archival clips and images, along with contemporary interview.

The music of the film is the music of this movement, and Red Saunders managed to draw around his idea artists of like mind. As the film progresses it gathers pace towards the enormous march and concert of 1978 in London's Victoria Park.

Most shocking is how Shah lays out the way racism casual was casually embedded in British culture through a series of clips of era-sitcoms, with racist gags supported by laughing studio audiences.

Coming out in cinemas in the wake of the Megan Markle interview, this conscious/unconscious bias on display is noteworthy. And coming out in the week of the Women's March 4 Justice, it is a hopeful reminder that individuals who come together for a cause can have a powerful effect.

This story Brilliant doco on rock and racism first appeared on The Canberra Times.