A new documentary film takes a look back to the musical movement to tackle the rise of racism in Britain in the late 1970s.

Group of youths at concert.
White Riot tells the story of a late 1970s youth movement. Photo: Syd Shelton.

White Riot is a film by Rubika Shah and takes its name from a track on The Clash’s eponymous first album which was recorded in CBS Studios, Whitfield Street, Fitzrovia in 1977.

The Clash were central to the Rock Against Racism movement that was created in response to a racist rant from Eric Clapton at a concert in August 1976. His outburst came at a time when The National Front, a far-right and fascist political party, was gaining strength, and Conservative politician Enoch Powell was pushing an anti-immigrant agenda.

Photographer Red Saunders wrote to the music press calling for music to be a force for good against racism. The three weeklies NME, Melody Maker, and Sounds all published the letter.

Saunders was overwhelmed with support and a group of like-minded individuals turned words into action and created Rock Against Racism (RAR) and a fanzine, Temporary Hoarding which spoke directly to the youth, by reporting on stories and issues that the mainstream British media was ignoring such as immigration, the Catholic side of the Northern Ireland conflict, and the police’s controversial “suspected persons” (sus) powers.

The National Front struck back attacking RAR supporters and petrol-bombing their office. But RAR spreads across the UK and into Europe, becoming a grassroots youth movement. In the summer of 1978, The Clash, Steel Pulse, and Tom Robinson headlined the famous gig in East London’s Victoria Park.

Shah says it was a time when music really did change the world. She wanted to take a look back to its origins and tell the story using archive material.

“What I found is that amongst all the hatred of that era, a small counter-culture movement — Rock Against Racism — began in a print shop in East London. It was an outlet for young people to share their views. They believed in equality — and music, punk and graphics were their weapon.

“So much of today’s politics mirrors that of the late 1970s. White Riot is an inspiring story about youth culture making a difference.”

White Riot is showing at the Curzon Bloomsbury, nationally, and online from Friday 18 September 2020.