Interview: Rubika Shah on the Punk Protest of Racism That Rocked England in “White Riot”

It comes a shock to even some of the people that lived it in “White Riot” to remember the time Eric Clapton performed in Birmingham in 1976 as the white nationalist movement known as the National Front were growing in popularity in England and Clapton announced to the crowd his support of one of its guiding lights, the Parliamentary member Enoch Powell. With the blues guitarist having successfully started his post-Creem solo career on the back of a hit cover of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “I Shot the Sherriff,” this seemed especially egregious yet not entirely uncommon in the mainstream as Rubika Shah’s compelling new doc attests, showing how racism that carried over from earlier times, combined with a new virulent strain amongst resentful white young men concerned with losing their place in an increasingly diversified society, had infiltrated popular culture, offering soft support of the hateful rhetoric that Powell had been spewing as well as the neo-Nazi Martin Webster.

After decades in which history had been told from one point of view about this time in England, Shah is able to offer a different perspective through the lens of the counter movement that was launched, naturally, by the punk scene. “White Riot” gets the band back together that initiated Rock Against Racism, with rock photographer Red Saunders pulling together a ragtag group of fellow photographers and graphic designers following Clapton’s comments to create a fanzine known as Temporary Hoarding that grew to become a movement involving the musicians they covered such as The Clash and Matumbi, leading to a raucous show in 1978 known as the Rock Against Racism Northern Carnival that grabbed the attention of an entire nation. The music is galvanizing, of course, but so is the community-driven activism that rises to the occasion of confronting a country tipping towards state-sanctioned support of white supremacy. With the film making its way across the Atlantic, Shah spoke about how she came across this act of rebellion, making the film at a time when it couldn’t seem any more relevant and putting history on blast.

How did this come about?

It was a film that we started making actually about five or six years ago and it came out of a bit of an archive deep dive really because my producer and co-creator [Ed Gibbs], we actually made a film before this about David Bowie called “Let’s Dance.” We’re obsessed with music and archive and we found the footage of The Clash playing at the Rock Against Racism Carnival and it was really a bit of a rabbit hole from there.

This may be starting at the end of the process, but was it tricky to structure to give the proper context for the carnival?

We figured out pretty quickly that when we wanted to tell the story, it was the carnival we wanted to end on because the film really delves into a lot of dark issues from the time, but we wanted it to be a piece where it felt like it would inspire people rather than be quite down when they left the cinema because when we made this film originally, we had made it with the cinema in mind. Obviously because of COVID, it’s being released into a different world at the moment, but we were editing for such a long time and we had so many different cuts of the film because there are certain things you have to mention for the context, but we didn’t want it to become a film about Eric Clapton, for example, or Enoch Powell or a film about all that stuff that happened before 1976. We wanted to get people to 1976 when the people behind Rock Against Racism all met because for us that was the most exciting part about the genesis of this carnival.

I know you couldn’t have predicted this present moment, but the film speaks so much to the present. While you were editing this, were the modern-day parallels informing how you went about structuring this?

Yeah, it did actually. There was a lot of sloganeering around the Brexit campaign and there was actual bits and pieces that we found in the archive that we included. One of them was “Take Our Country Back” or something like that and something very similar we found had been part of the National Front campaign, so we used that in the opening, so that idea of how the parties, the right and the far right today, were looking to what was happening in the ‘70s and using some of that language. It’s quite scary actually when you really delve into it.

What was shocking to me was that entire BBC section where you start with The Black and White Minstrel Show in 1977 and seeing how racist tropes had been normalized during that period – what was that like to uncover?

It was hard work actually to find some of it because the BBC obviously doesn’t really want people to use that footage because it shows them in a pretty awful light. It was crazy that stuff was being made like 40 years ago.

Was there any piece of archival or an interview that you did that pushed this in a direction you weren’t expecting?

There was a film that was made with The Clash at the time and it’s beautifully shot, and we knew that we wanted to make a really big deal of the carnival, so we used a lot of that stuff and we used every take [we could get our hands on] for the march. It was a blessing that we found all this footage of the march and the carnival because really it’s pretty much like 15 minutes of the film, but we wanted to give people the experience that they were there and this is what it was like.

Does Red and the others behind Rock Against Racism welcome you with open arms? What was it like to reconnect all these people?

It’s a fact-finding mission actually because you’re starting from nothing when we did that. The first person we connected with was Sid, one of the photographers, and then it became a process of talking to people and getting different introductions. Eventually we got to Red and talked to him and he was brilliant, giving us so much time with him, so that was really exciting. And they held onto [all the letters]. The archive comes from loads of different people and it was incredible — all those photos and letters, something you don’t really see nowadays. People don’t really write letters.

When a lot of the story lived on the page like the fanzine, was it immediate how to tell this as a visual story?

One of the first things that really struck me was the fanzine and just seeing those images and just seeing the graphics made me feel like this has got to be an integral part of the story. We worked so hard on the graphics. We made a short film called “White Riot London” and that gave us an opportunity to test out some of the punk graphics ideas that we wanted to use. The great thing about the fanzine was that it told the story of what was happening at the time from the grassroots, from the people that were on the ground because they were people writing about their day-to-day experience. This was the stuff that wasn’t getting talked about in the mainstream media, so I really liked that idea because punk is all about that, right? It’s about people on the sidelines and people that aren’t in the mainstream and we were able to incorporate that into the film.

Obviously there’s great music in it, but it gives the film a real energy that a lot of songs play in their entirety. What was it like integrating the music?

It’s quite difficult to decide what music to put in because you have a wishlist and heaps and heaps of chats, but actually when setting out making a film like this because we actually wanted to make it feel quite narrative so it was more like a character-led story more than a overview of what happened, we wanted the music to really mean something. So a lot of it is they’re just brilliant songs, and discovering bands I didn’t know that much about like 999, there’s just really, really good tracks with lots of energy and they deserved to be listened to in their entirety.

Even though this has come out into the world in a way that I imagine you didn’t expect, what’s it been like putting out there?

I really rediscovered social media because of this. I hadn’t been that active for ages, but it’s so great to [see] people get really behind it and a lot of people are watching it and sharing [their reactions] on social media and there’s a lot of talking points in it as well, which really affect people, not just people that were there, but people who are coming to it new, just like me.

“White Riot” opens on October 16th in virtual cinemas. A full list is here.

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