The guy with mask and the cape runs onstage, to the screams of thousands of people standing in Victoria Park on a characteristically brisk April day in 1978. He calls himself “Mr. Oligarchy,” but folks backstage — and some of the savvier people attending this outdoor concert — know him as Red Saunders. “This ain’t no Woodstock,” the gent tells the assembled Britons before him. “This is the carnival against the fucking Nazis!”
As Saunders himself recounts, decades after the fact, the cheer from the crowd was massive. Back then, he was a curly-haired, mutton-chopped photographer who decided, along with some like-minded activists, to take on the National Front and other racist groups that were making a bid for England’s hearts and minds. His response was an organization dubbed “Rock Against Racism.” The show in Victoria Park was a huge RAR event that featured bands like X-Ray Spex, the Tom Robinson Band and the Clash. The set that Joe Strummer & Co. played that day, including an incendiary version of “White Riot” with Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey, was legendary.
If you’ve seen Rude Boy, the 1980 half-documentary/half day-in-the-life fictional take on the only band that mattered, then you know the gig; the footage of that real spirit-of-’78 concert makes up roughly a third of the film. The story behind the how and why of that show, however — the urgency and necessity and call-to-arms radicalization of it — has receded into the background as a footnote, and this is where White Riot pogos into the picture. A look back at the formation of Rock Against Racism and the era that gave birth to it, Rubika Shah’s incendiary documentary drops viewers into a less-than-United Kingdom where scumbags like Enoch Powell preached hate in parliament and skinheads attacked West Indian and East Asian communities. This was a country who’d once fought fascism tooth and nail on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields; now it was suddenly seeing a certain subset of its citizens re-enacting it on the streets. A kick against the pricks was called for. Saunders may have played a cartoon character in a cape onstage, but he, along with the kindred spirits of RAR, were real-life superheroes.
It was at a Birmingham concert in 1976 that Eric Clapton, deep into a debilitating drinking problem, declared his support for Powell after unleashing some racial epithets onstage. The statements made headlines. (As the movie reminds us, the guitarist wasn’t the only rock star saying dumb shit around that time — Rod Stewart had referred to Powell as “the man” in an interview, and a coked-up David Bowie had declared that Britain was ready for a fascist leader.) Incensed, Saunders shot off a letter to the New Musical Express, calling Clapton a “colonialist of black music”; at the end of the missive, he asked for help starting a movement “against the racist poison in music.” He dubbed it “Rock Against Racism.” and along with co-conspirators like Roger Hubble, Ruth “Pink Heart” Gregory and “Irate Kate” Webb, begin holding meetings. A ‘zine called Temporary Hoarding (Saunders dug the name because it had “RAR” embedded in it) laid out their mission statement: “We want rebel music … crisis music. Now music. Love music. Hate racism.”
And though it was mainstream rock that fired those first pro-Powell salvos, it was punk rock that would respond in loud, confrontational fashion. White Riot makes a point of viewing the emerging punk culture as both a defining aesthetic for RAR’s work, from the Dadaist cut-up look of its Xeroxed in-house rag to the flyers for shows, and as a battleground. Led by Martin Webster, the National Front was recruiting new members in front of schools and among the disenfranchised hanging out on street corners, many of whom were gravitating toward this new music’s brash, fuck-off–friendly attitude. Sid Vicious wore a swastika t-shirt as a shock treatment towards polite society; the organization trying to bring his fans into their fold, however, hid “the swastika behind the Union Jack.” Despite the culture being intertwined with black music (notably reggae and ska) and black/interracial musicians, “punk could have gone either way,” says one talking head. It was up to RAR to make sure it didn’t slide to the far, far right.
Yet one of the best things about Shah’s music-history lesson, besides the vintage performance footage and hearing Selector’s Pauline Black and the Clash’s Topper Headon reflect on the moment, is the way it shows you how deeply the culture at large was already steeped in racist ideologies. A quick montage of TV programming shows sitcom characters blithely using slurs as punchlines; a full-out minstrel show (!!!) was considered primetime BBC fodder in 1977. Powell and Webster’s declarations for keeping Britain “for the British” — you don’t have to read between the lines to get what they’re saying — ran on the front page of newspapers and was debated on evening chat shows. Meanwhile, those same outlets reported on the rise of violence against immigrants. An upcoming general election threatened to usher a fringe movement into power. It was a tipping point. Plus ça change ….
White Riot culminates in that Victoria Park show, the National Front’s defeat in the ’79 election and Rock Against Racism’s coronation as a genuine gamechanger. For old-school punk fanatics and armchair Anglophiles, it’s a glorious look back at a landmark moment. But to hear Saunders, now a bald greybeard rocking red suspenders over a Santa-level belly, talk about the struggle is to note that he keeps slipping in and out of the past tense. Rock stars backing racists and sprouting idiotic nonsense have not gone away, as anyone who’s Googled “Morrissey news” over the last few years will tell you. The word “Brexit” has entered the global lexicon. We currently have a commander-in-chief who’s telling hate groups to stand by. It helps to remember what the song that gives the doc its name is about; should there be any doubt, Shah includes a clip of Strummer himself explaining that he wanted white people to realize they needed to rise up against racial equality as well. The filmmaker has given us a pitch-perfect, punk-as-fuck portrait of a movement. She’s also reminded us that, regardless of bygone victories, the fight still goes on. Here’s a blueprint for resistance.