When Sky Atlantic announced it was producing a miniseries about the 1970s black power movement in the UK, many people were excited. This area of history is largely ignored by the history books, particularly in the British school system, and many Britons will know far more about the American civil right movement than the persecution that POC faced right on our doorstep. Still, with talent on board in the form of Idris Elba as Executive Producer and 12 Years A Slave’s Oscar-winning scribe John Ridley as director and writer, this Showtime/Sky collaboration promised to shine a light on this fascinating, important, and incredibly current part of British history. It’s unfortunate then that in its first episode, Guerrilla fails to compel in quite the way that it should.
Rather than being a factual depiction of events or a biopic, Guerrilla is a reimagining of history, borrowing from the revolution taking place at a similar time on American soil, and posing the question “What if the UK civil rights movement had been more violent?” It’s a strange thing to ask, really – one wonders what the value is in rewriting history, particularly when the reality of the UK civil rights movements and the presence of the UK Black Panthers is already fascinating enough, without any embellishment. Still, in using artistic license to tell his story, Ridley centres the narrative on a mixed race couple – played by Freida Pinto and Babou Ceesay. Jas and Marcus are initially peaceful protesters involved in the civil rights movement at the heart of London, but after becoming embroiled in a violent confrontation with police, they find themselves set on a path of no return.
Guerrilla isn’t easy to watch. It’s violent and unflinching, and often unsettling – and it should be. Difficult stories should not be diluted in order to make them more palatable for audiences. Particularly now, with instances of hate crime on the increase both in the UK and abroad, Guerrilla is a reminder of how far we’ve come – and how far there is left to go.
Supporting talent comes in the form of Idris Elba as Jas’s artist friend Kent, and Rory Kinnear as a Rhodesian-born member of Special Branch’s Black Power Desk, an elite (and top secret) force brought in to tackle the perceived threat of black activists. It’s refreshing to see Elba take a more understated role, very different from his usual leading man status, and Kinnear is on top form as the scumbag gumshoe out to squash the movement by any means necessary. It’s also worth mentioning that Fresh Meat’s brilliant Zawe Ashton is billed as a supporting cast member, but her role is hard to place as she only has about sixty seconds of screen time in the first episode.
Therein lies Guerrilla’s major problem – black women are largely absent from a show that is supposed to be all about Britain’s black power movement. The only black female given more than a moment’s screen time in the first episode is a police informant having an affair with Kinnear’s character, and with that in mind, it seems like a strange decision to make the leading female character of the series of Indian descent. Ridley has defended his casting choice, claiming he wanted to portrayed a mixed-race relationship as he himself has faced prejudice for marrying outside of his race, and perhaps feels that as Guerrilla takes place in a fictionalised version of 1970s London, it’s a chance to tell a story unique to him. Even so, when you watch Guerrilla, one gets the sense that Ridley has tried to do too much, and that the show has been billed as something it isn’t. Whilst it’s refreshing to see a daring, brave and courageous woman at the helm of a political and social drama (and Pinto sells the role well, playing it with the right mix of vulnerability, naivety and boldness) the lack of black women in Guerrilla cannot go unnoticed or unmentioned.
From a technical point of view, the show feels oddly amateur to say it’s a Sky/Showtime collaboration. Within the first five minutes there’s a rather glaring editing error, and throughout one senses this in particular could have been stronger. It feels almost amateur, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if this was intentional, it doesn’t go far enough. If Guerrilla wanted to replicate the DIY origins of the movement it’s meant to be following, it could (and should) have tried much harder – all that’s left is an awkward in-between.
That’s perhaps how best to describe Guerrilla overall – it seems confused and lacking identity. It’s an idealistic sort of show – one with noble intentions that picks up on currant frustrations and echoes the present day political climate whilst telling an important story, but it does a disservice to its source material by ignoring the women who carried the movement on their backs. Guerrilla is a missed opportunity if ever there was one, but perhaps if nothing else, it can serve as a conversation starter in order to educate audiences about a vital moment in British history.
All six episodes of Guerrilla are available on Sky on Demand from April 13th