The new documentary film White Riot describes a truly unimaginable time when a country with a deep history of liberal democracy and defeating Nazism is plagued by a deplorable economy that is fueling the rising popularity of a fascist movement. Certainly nothing like that has happened in the US in recent memory. Certainly not! Rather than Trumpism, White Riot examines the rise of Britain’s National Front in the mid-’70s. In particular, the film focuses on the concerted work of activists and musicians to organize a cultural counter-movement, called Rock against Racism.

The National Front was never an electoral threat – though it may have grown into one, if left unchallenged – but it was a major cultural force in Britain in the ‘70s. Its central political argument was a self-evidently stupid one: namely, that immigrants were destroying the British economy by taking all of the jobs. Even at the time, everyone saw through this and understood that the National Front were racists making fascistic appeals for racial purification. It appealed to British youth in particular and was able to sweep up various cultural icons in the process; the most famous, of course, is Eric Clapton, who supported the National Front on stage in Birmingham. The whole notion of “disaffected youth” as a social problem has never had a stronger social basis than in ‘70s Britain, where the economy was in absolute tatters and all the kids knew that authority figures were lying to them about the opportunities they would have in the future if they only did their part in going to school and following the rules. In this context, the National Front thrived. Teens loved its audacity and indecency. Its impact on British popular culture is still clearly visible today in film and literature, including the Harry Potter book series and films such as Children of Men and This Is England.

White Riot, to its credit, does not really examine the National Front at all. There truly is nothing interesting about fascists. Instead, it emphasizes the activists who worked to organize the cultural counter-offensive. Rock against Racism sprung up from the grassroots. It organized hundreds of concerts by musicians of every race and ethnicity to both celebrate the racial diversity that contributed to the flourishing of British culture – and, again, particularly popular music, where the British were truly atop the world – and to denounce the fascistic racism of the National Front. Rock against Racism also created student groups, maintained a periodical and worked to stay at the forefront of youth and popular culture in Britain in the ‘70s. It, too, was audacious and indecent as a way of winning over the kids.

For those familiar with British political history (or the titles of British punk songs), the climax of White Riot is never in doubt, but that is no reason to spoil it for the uninitiated. The documentary is the embodiment of the punk aesthetic of ‘70s Britain, with fast cutting that seems to belie an inherent attention deficit in the filmmakers and intended viewers. The film positively darts from scene to scene, topic to topic, interspersing homemade graphics, archival footage and present-day interviews of the activists as they are today. While it may exaggerate the threat of the National Front, White Riot shows the joy of challenging racist bastards and thrusting a middle finger to authority.

White Riot shows the joy of challenging racist bastards and thrusting a middle finger to authority.
77 %
Irreverent antifascist fun

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