Writing a review for Guerrilla comes with pressure. I have friends, people I have worked with, respect, admire and inspired by involved in the project. The level of work which has gone into bringing this series to life is apparent. Sitting through a Q&A at the BFI the cast and its director John Ridley, stressed how groundbreaking it was to have so much black and brown talent behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera. A rarity in the UK. Even after all the diversity discussions and initiatives.
When I first heard about Guerrilla the impression given from the marketing was that it was a story based on the black power movement in the UK. GREAT! Black folks in the UK, have had to adopt American and African American history because of the erasure of our British presence. Contextually, black people living in the Diaspora have had our history squeezed through the slavery narrative. The lie being, we lived in mud huts, ran naked through the dark African jungles, fighting lions and tigers (oh my) and ate each other until white people ‘saved’ us. Then, whichever country we ended up, life post-slavery has been omitted from most western school history books.
In the UK, British black people have been fed the line that the British abolished slavery (let’s not mention the British run Caribbean plantations and the many British immigrants in America running slave plantations over there); according to period dramas like Downton Abbey, black people popped up randomly with no back story, no family and no other desire than to romance a white aristocrat. Then there’s the miraculous jump from slavery where we disappeared until the en masse arrival from the Caribbean in the 60s on the infamous Windrush. (No mention of how the African community arrived...)
To get the truth about our history, British black families have had to start our own extra curricular programs. Side note – I didn’t know much about my Ghanaian, African history outside of my mother’s memories, but during my youth I immersed myself in African American history. When it came to the slavery part of my history lesson in middle school I ended up telling the teacher to fuck off. Why? When I tried to get him to expand the one sentence on slavery, I was told to stop being disruptive. I’m not alone here.
So, there was excitement regarding Guerrilla. Finally light will be shed on the fight for equality from a British perspective, rumours abounding that the narrative will focus on the story of the infamous Mangrove 9. Anticipation was tempered when the first trailer was released and we saw that Freida Pinto, the beautiful British Asian actress best known for her role in Slumdog Millionaire was the lead actress cast alongside Babou Ceesay. Still I had faith, especially after hearing that two of my favourite British black actresses, Zawe Ashton and Wunmi Mosaku had also been cast. However after watching the whole series, Guerrilla isn’t what I had expected. It is not framed around the history of the British Black Panthers nor the Mangrove 9. It is not about Black Power and the rise to defeat the racist establishment. It isn’t a Black historical story. It is a love story. Set against the backdrop of racial injustice. British Black people are not the focus of Guerrilla.
We are introduced to Jas (Pinto) and Marcus (Ceesay) a couple who are united in love and the need to speak out about racial injustice. Prisoner, Dhari (Nathaniel Martello-White) serves as the mouthpiece to Marcus’ political manifesto taking the word of the movement to his fellow prisoners, that is until Jas and Marcus decide to break Dhari out of Wormwood Scrubs prison. The catalyst for the breakout, the police murder of their friend and fellow activist Julian (Nicholas Pinnock) at a peaceful protest turned violent. We also meet artistic photographer, Kent (Idris Elba) ex-boyfriend of Jas who is not impressed with radical action, and Fallon (Denise Gough) the white Irish girlfriend of murdered Julian. On the other side, we have racist policemen in charge of the Black Power Desk, Cullen (Daniel Mays) and Pence (Rory Kinnear). (The Black Power Desk was the real life unit dedicated to taking down black radicals in the UK). Pence instigates the murder of Julian, by enlisting the help of his lover/informant Kenya (Wunmi Mosaku) for whom he also has an illegitimate 5-year old son. (Pence is married with his own family).
With all this going on, we are given storylines from all angles. The Jas and Marcus love story, with Jas’ evolution as a revolutionary hell-bent on making an impact through reckless violence causing conflict with Marcus’ need to effect change through words, and peaceful protesting. Dhari’s violent destructive intentions. Fallon’s struggle to get over the death of her boyfriend, get away from the police harassing her to give up details on her radical friends gone AWOL and whether or not she gives them up or joins them. Pence’s racist police actions, his personal struggles juggling his black lover, mixed-race son, and his white wife and their son who’s addicted to drugs.
The focus of Guerrilla falls around Jas, Fallon and Pence. Everyone else serve as plot movers. We get more insight into these three characters and their motivations than any other. The amount of screen time dedicated to Pence and his personal life is quite odd, with more scenes about his drug-addicted son that are necessary. The attempt to humanise the racist policeman in a story about racial injustice is questionable, especially as the portrayal of the radicals is less than favourable.
Jas, Marcus, Dhari and their African-American comrade Leroy (Brandon Scott) are erratic. They have no direction, no plan, they in-fight. Egos clash. Dhari & Leroy want to sell drugs to survive. Jas makes reckless moves on her own. Marcus gets dragged along unwillingly complicit. There’s black on black violence, and where I know that this will have happened, it’s a bit of a kick to see ‘us’ be so unrelenting towards each other in a series supposedly about our fight against injustice.
The erasure of black women discussion which has arisen, particularly after the premiere of the pilot, is valid. The post screening fallout that the media tried to frame as angry black women make beautiful Asian actress cry was offensive. For the record Freida Pinto was not in any way reduced to tears. John Ridley’s emotional plea for understanding his position for choosing an Asian female lead to tell this particular story is what caused the controversy. His interracial relationship posed as justification. That in itself is not an issue. In 2017 interracial dating is not rare. But having an Asian female play the lead alongside a black man in a series set in 70s UK supposedly about the Black Power movement, is confusing.
There is historical evidence that there were Asian allies. Farrukh Dhondy the much celebrated Indian British activist was integral to contributing factual accuracy to Guerrilla’s storyline. Recently passed Darcus Howe the Caribbean British activist was also an influential consultant, he even cameos in one of the episodes. Between the two stalwarts of the movement, they served to justify that Jas although a fictional character is loosely inspired by Mala Sen, who was once married to Farrukh and worked alongside Darcus Howe and others to protect their immigrant communities from racist attacks. Cool, but yet there are no other Asian radicals featured in Guerrilla. We also cannot overlook that relations between British Blacks and Asians has historically always been tension filled. There is not one protest aimed at Jas and her relationships with black men.
If you’ve not had your head in the sand, you know that over the years black women have fought to be seen on screen outside of stereotypical roles. The celebration of Scandal, How to Get Away From Murder, The Quad, Rebel, Hidden Figures and the spate of new films and shows driven by, or starring wonderfully adept black women has been deafening and long awaited. With shows like Rebel and The Quad getting extra kudos for placing dark-skinned women in front and centre roles instead of being the forever single best friend / hoochie / single angry mother.
So what of Kenya the only dark-skinned black woman who gets proper screen time? She is a prostituting traitorous single mother with a racist lover. Pause. Zawe Ashton’s character Omega is I guess visually modelled on Angela Davis, but serves as the voice in the ear of Kent (Idris Elba). Omega pushes Kent to take the anti-radical approach. We get no back story to Omega. I take specific umbrage with Mosaku’s role as Kenya. The position she’s put in, and that throughout the whole series her agency is disconnected from the movement and revolves around her one-sided predatory relationship with a less than appealing middle-aged racist white policeman. The only time you see two black women interact in this whole series is when Omega and Kenya cross paths. Obviously Omega is less impressed with Kenya’s life choices so their interaction is unfriendly.
In contrast, along with Jas, Irish Fallon and Eliette (Bella Dayne) a Canadian French rebel, are the chosen female characters given a more rounded existence. Fallon appears in every episode. She’s the ‘face’ of police brutality, in that her black man was killed by the police. She’s Irish giving credence to the racism Irish people faced and she’s routinely harassed by the police. Eliette serves as Jas’ confidante, advisor and friend whilst the radicals are on the run. Her story is important to Jas’ development. Her character’s journey is a memorable moment in the series. Fallon could have been a black woman. Jas could have been a black woman without displacing Freida Pinto who could have been cast in place of Bella Dayne’s Eliette as a representative of the Asian allegiance. She could even have had a black boyfriend. This would have given us more to align with, authenticated the story a bit more; Fallon and Eliette could still exist in this set up.
The British Black Power movement was a fight led by black people, predominantly of Caribbean descent supported by Africans who weren’t working towards returning ‘home’. Through exhibition, books and documentary the faces of the British Black Power movement were black men and women interacting and working together to overthrow the establishment’s racist profiling and push back against racist attacks from their white neighbours. Through Kent, through Marcus, through Dhari, through Omega we get no back story, not even a flashback, which makes it hard to care for them as we’re not given enough time to grow with them. In a show supposedly about the Black Power movement, the absence of black on black relationships is strange. The only black male, black female interaction is between Kent and Omega, and their relationship isn’t exactly warm. Kent is also in love with Jas. Nowhere in the main narrative of Guerrilla do black men and black women, or black women and black women interact amicably!
If I take away all expectation, disappointment and confusion, the series isn’t all bad. There are a few strong moments. Everyone acts brilliantly Martello-White, Pinto, Ceesay, Mosaku, Ashton the whole cast in fact, stand out in various parts. But key characters aren’t given the full 360 treatment. For example, if Fallon were black it wouldn’t be strange that she gets to navigate black spaces at such a sensitive time, unquestioned. But as a white Irish female, her journey leaves plot holes because the story isn’t supposed to be about her, but to establish Fallon we need more. There are also some overly-dramatic scenes that push Guerrilla into Tarantino territory, which are unintentionally funny because, this is the UK not Hollywood! I especially was wide-eyed at the hospital break out, and Jas’ random one woman attack on the Rhodesian party.
It’s unfortunate that the marketing around Guerrilla caused controversy. Now was not the time to use an important moment in British Black history to promote a story which dances around it but doesn’t all the way tell it the way we deserve. I don’t know if there was some thinking that Guerrilla shouldn’t scare off white audiences, why they diluted the narrative away from focusing solely on British Black history. Without the misappropriation, you could watch Guerrilla for snippets of history. Each episode opens with a quote from revolutionaries which, if anything you could Google and discover more about them. Guerrilla does give insight into the climate of the UK during that era. If you like, it positions itself to say it wasn’t just Blacks who felt the strains of racism. As a British Black person who has been upset by Guerrilla, if you manage your expectations you may see it differently. May.
The UK has failed black people when it comes to bringing authentic black stories to television. The BBC only last month, allowed us access to purchase our much revered comedy series The Real McCoy (after 20+ years of protesting). We’re still clutching protectively at the memory of Desmond’s 20+ years after it was taken off air. Today we do have more black characters on TV. But a regular sitcom about black families living their lives, nope. TV dramas with strong black characters telling black narratives which don’t revolve around poverty, crime and distress, nope. Period dramas, most definitely nope. Let me not talk about black characters in love. If we do feature in a British sitcom or drama, more than likely our partner will be white.
So my last note is to British TV gatekeepers, we definitely need more of our stories told. We definitely need more series’ that depict our British Black history accurately and if you can’t make it there is an abundance of British Black storytellers who are more than ready. British Black creatives have always had to take the making of their narratives into their own hands. Of late, the diversity discussion has at least forced British broadcasters and production companies to think a little deeper. Where the Internet and the stage have provided an escape route for British Black creatives, the holy grail that is getting your ideas on prime time BBC, Sky, ITV etc. still proves unattainable. We will do for self, but the reason why British Black talent run away from the UK is because, still our own broadcasters have no faith in what we can do, what we can do well and allowing us to take control of telling our authentic stories.
Even John Ridley said at the Q&A’s it’s wonderful that he’s been given the chance to make this series, but what Guerrilla exposed is the wealth of British Black talent who deserve to be given the chance.
All six episodes of Guerrilla are available to watch via Sky Atlantic now. Watch it here.