I can’t think of a better documentary to watch right now than White Riot. In the 1970s, the UK was rocked by a rise in xenophobic and racist violence. Some punk bands of the era noticed that those espousing racist beliefs were showing up at their concerts, and to their credit, the musicians took action. Thus Rock Against Racism was born. Their story is important during our own tumultuous era, when hate is being used by political leaders for nefarious purposes. While the documentary is drier than it should be, as it gets caught up in endless interviews with individuals who aren’t household names, overall it inspires with the way it weaves together archival footage and visual materials.
The title comes from a song by The Clash. As band member Topper Headon puts it, that song was “co-opted by Nazis, but they didn’t listen to the lyrics, which talk about the wish that white people should riot like black people because we’re not happy either.” But it’s graphic designer Ruth “Pink Heart” Gregory who explains what the stakes were: “It was a scary moment because punk could’ve gone either way. Some of the bands did have [far right] … followings.” Sound familiar?