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Three things I didn’t know before watching White Riot:
- Eric Clapton has said some crazy racist shit. I’m not talking about the kind of “Grandpa’s from another era” insidious evil that we white people pretend we don’t hear because it doesn’t directly affect us. I’m talking about the kind of explicit hatred Stephen Miller likely saves for sexytime.
- As recently as the late 1970s/early 1980s, England had a real, real bad Nazi problem that inspired Rock Against Racism (RAR), a movement that used punk and reggae musicians to fight against general systemic intolerance and anti-immigrant hatred in specific. It sparked a huge antifascist music festival and carnival attended by a massive audience of mostly young people, many of whom would grow up to vote for Brexit one day!
- I love the music of X-Ray Spex, Steel Pulse, and the Tom Robinson Band, but I love the work of writer/director Rubika Shah even more.
Let’s formally start this review there: White Riot sure could have been obnoxious and self-congratulatory. “Look at how all these white people stood up against racism four decades ago” means very little when surveying the state of things these days. The countless chronicles of 60s activism often fail to conclude with “and we are still dealing with literally all of those things today!”
Shah’s doc is so much savvier than that. It’s a snapshot, a blueprint, and a bitchin’ mix tape all at once. White Riot isn’t about framing what the RAR did as “solving” anything. Instead, it is acutely focused on a feeling, on why the punk scene charged the frontlines to fight against fascist politicians. The doc has a thrumming baseline hidden behind more obvious riffs, urging us to consider why some of us are sitting on the sidelines right now.
White Riot is acutely fixated on UK politics of the past, but you may be surprised to find out that America has a bit of a fascism problem itself these days! Something about the naked, direct, often inarticulate and guttural noise that punk musicians in particular made in response to the naked, direct, often inarticulate and guttural racism of politicians feels more salient than ever. As RAR founder Red Saunders says (more eloquently) in the film: You can tell the people flirting with fascism who are still salvageable and those who just need to be screamed at.
I won’t speak for the UK, but we’re officially in scream territory here in the US. As elected leaders try to bend and twist the principles of antifascism until they mirror the grotesqueness of fascism, it’s clear that we have a cultural deficiency happening and not just a moral one. If we have anything like an RAR movement, it’s too quiet, too polite, and not nearly punk enough. To watch White Riot is to long for a poorly dressed musician yelling expletives at extreme right-wingers in America through a squelching amp.
Grade = A-
Other Critical Voices to Consider
- Linda Marric at NME says “Shah’s genius resides in managing to compare both eras effectively, without resorting to the cliched or the careless.” She’s so right on that point.
- Amelia Harvey at Screen Queens didn’t dig it as much, saying “The seriousness of the issues raised in the film gets lost in the cut and paste aesthetic of the narrative. The stories don’t feel well woven together, the beats between archival footage too long.”
- Courtney Small of POV Magazine says “Weaving together music, politics, animation and history, White Riotcarries a punk infused swagger that is infectious.”