Since rock is no longer the dominant form of popular music, it’s hard to say how much good reviving the story of the British-born organization Rock Against Racism could do. But one of the many things that “White Riot,” a documentary about RAR directed by Rubika Shah, brings home is that the world could still use more somethings against racism.
The movie opens recounting two disturbing facets of 1970s Britain. First: the rise of the far-right party called the National Front, whose bids for governmental power got increasingly credible in the economically strapped nation; racist rhetoric from Enoch Powell, a prominent Conservative member of Parliament, fueled the National Front’s interests. Second: the embrace of that racist rhetoric by mainstream rock stars, including Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart, whose quoted pronouncements from that time remain appalling. (Clapton has subsequently apologized for these remarks, most recently in a 2017 documentary, but none of his expressed regrets have registered as forcefully as the initial action.)
The photographer and experimental theater director Red Saunders was both disgusted by these pronouncements and energized by seeing a gig by the Clash. So the idea of Rock Against Racism was born — not just to preach an anti-racist message, but also to integrate musicians and music.
In an interview for the film, Pauline Black, the frontwoman for the ska band the Selecter, says: “Rock Against Racism was white people finally waking up to the fact that, ‘Oh my God! There’s racism here!’ Ha! Please! You know, Black people were living it.”
But the group got things done, and the movie is especially compelling in its depiction of political organization in the analog age. It culminates in a 1978 “anti-Nazi carnival,” which featured punk and reggae groups, and at which the Clash nobly ceded the headliner’s spot to Tom Robinson, whom the organizers considered a more uniting figure. The spectacle, depicted in archival footage, is both heartening and headbanging.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes. Watch through virtual cinemas.