Sky Atlantic’s Guerrilla is a tale of two star-crossed lovers on the streets of London in 1971. This was one of the most politically active times in British history. Played by Freida Pinto (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and Babou Ceesay (Free Fire), Jas Mitra and Marcus Hill have their resolve pushed to the limit when they break political prisoner Dhari Bishop (Nathaniel Martello-White) out of prison and form a radical cell in 1970s Britain. But what is radical? After all, one man’s radical is another man’s freedom fighter. Produced by Idris Elba and written by John Ridley, Guerrilla makes the audience decide whose side they’re on, and it’s really as simple as black and white.
When we’re witness to shows like Luke Cage, The Get Down, Empire, Black-ish, Power and Underground, it’s possible to forget that Britain has its own black population as well, a people who are not as well represented on film and television. I don’t think I can remember the last time TV or film wrote a story about what it meant to be black in Britain. Andrea Levy’s Small Island discusses the origin of the black in Britain and the BBC adaptation attempts to convey the novel’s message, but black people in Britain are not sought out on screen as much as our American kin. I hope Guerrilla is a moment that proves to be the start of a movement that brings black back to Britain.
“We are the children of the colonies who built this Empire on the backs of their labour. Strong in our pride (…) A citizen or a visitor? (…) And if you protest If you stand up and say you’re owed what’s yours, he treats you like a criminal” narrates Bishop in the pilot. And it was at this time, within the first few minutes of the episode that I saw why this was on Sky Atlantic. Quite honestly, and I say this with the deepest love for BBC TV shows, Guerrilla is too hot for the BBC to handle. They don’t do shows like this and poking Britain’s colonial hangover at a tetchy time in the current climate would not be politically objective, and we all know how politically objective the BBC are don’t we?
Britain had its fair share of South Africans, no matter if that was on the cricket team or in the police force. Rory Kinnear (Penny Dreadful) plays one of those said men on the police force, a man called Pence who seemed like another one of those racist officers in the beginning, until we see his black mistress and mixed-race child. Kinnear was bad, but he was good in comparison to his partner Cullen (Daniel Mays), who is as ruthless, merciless and racist as they come. He’s a man who stops at nothing to get what he wants, even if it means beating on defenceless women and allowing men to be tortured to near-death, encircled by the “ethical” methods of Great British policing.
This story is told by looking into social and political history, rather than being a biopic limited series. Writer and director John Ridley (12 Years A Slave) with executive producer Idris Elba are to be applauded to give a forgotten history scope. It just sucks that shows like this are never given the scope they deserve. Imagine if this was given a Netflix budget, and what they could have done with that. Here is a political war game between ethnic minority groups and the white establishment, told from the perspectives of Marcus, an unemployed English teacher and his girlfriend Jas, a nurse who originates from India, played so aptly by the highly capable and talented Freida Pinto.
I could have done with more development into Elba’s character. He goes by the name Kent, but his really name is Kentoro Abbasi. He just wants to be British, but he will never be white. To me, he seemed like Uncle Tom, such as when he helps the police. Yet, this can be viewed as doing a bad thing to do good. He’s too much of a thinker to condone gun violence and prison break, so the limelight goes to Pinto, and this continues throughout its six-episode run. As with anything with Idris Elba, I enjoyed his performance, but I didn’t like his character. He just seemed to want to disregard his blackness to fit in, and this is a repercussion of what it means to be black in Britain.
This is not Small Island, nor is it an imitation of Selma, nor does it try to Americanise what is British. This is very much its own thing. From police brutality to the institutional racism to doing things for “the cause”, Britain had all the same problems as America back then. The performances are brilliant, the cinematography is there to shock, and it does that job a little too well. Quite honestly, I loved it, and I hope this show will set off a domino effect of drama to be viewed on the world stage, to show what it means to be Black in Britain. After all…