Hannah Dunleavy takes a look at Sky’s new mini-series about black activism in 70s London.
When you’re living in weird times, which I think we can all agree we are right now, it’s easy to look backwards for comparisons. Hence we are now simultaneously living in the new 1930s, 50s, 60s and 70s.
And so Guerrilla, John Ridley’s not entirely historically accurate tale of a young couple who enter the world of black activism in 1970s London, is the latest in a surprisingly long line of series that have arrived on our TV screens at precisely the right time.
Commissioned by Showtime and Sky, it’s six hour-long episodes, which is only part of the reason it feels like its natural home should be the BBC. (See also Netflix’s The Crown. Although I have to say, if the BBC lacks the budget to make the latter and the political will to make the former, while it’s a sad day, I’m grateful other people are making them.)
Guerrilla gets straight to the point, making the most of the TV shorthand now that officially represents the 70s: the muted hues with occasional flashes of colour (here at an Indian wedding), the institutional racism and misogyny, the sheer bloody dismalness of life. It’s a smart move, because with the scene instantly set, the series starts to paint a broad tableau of political unrest, taking in Ireland, Germany, Canada, the USA and Zimbabwe.
Now is probably the right time to mention Guerrilla‘s most controversial aspect. Though – huge surprise – initial media blathering about star Freida Pinto being brought to tears by journalists was over-egged, there does remain a very valid point. Which is: while this series tells the stories of black activists and female activists, on this particular Venn diagram, those circles never meet.
In fact, of the five main female characters, one is Indian, one is – significantly in terms of the plot – mixed race, two are white and only one, the most passive, Kenya, is black. Although, luckily for us, she’s played by Wunmi Mosaku.
And while there’s obviously very little I can add to this debate, I can certainly see why it’s galling that a series can make the space for a well-sketched firebrand Québécois but not a black woman with opinions.
Because, in fact, it is the women in Guerrilla that are its strongest suit. And by strong, I mean hard as nails. Pinto’s Jas is the fire in the belly. Zawe Ashton’s Omega is the brains. Bella Dayne’s Eliette is the swinging dick.
Pinto and Dayne have some belting scenes together, just sitting around talking feminism and politics. I shit you not. It’s a scene which has its right-wing counterpart, as policemen Pence (Rory Kinnear) and Cullen (Daniel Mays) attempt to justify their particular world view. Together they help paint the 70s as a period when no one was right, just varying degrees of wrong.
The casting of Mays, whose drive-by performance in Line of Duty last year was a masterclass in humanising a monster and, Kinnear, who continues to move us all closer to the inevitable statement ‘Britain’s best actor, if you ask me’, is also a smart move. They’re wrong-uns, but never cartoonish, and they warn of precisely the dangers of using the past as any kind of example of how the future should look.
Elsewhere, series producer Idris Elba makes a decent fist of his role as Kent, a man keen to tread a non-violent path. And Babou Ceesay is so effective as unemployed teacher Marcus, who finds himself at the centre of a political storm, that I spent the first episode internally bemoaning his miscasting, before realising that in fact, it was not he who was wrong for the role, but Marcus who was miscast in his life.
It might be easy to arch an eyebrow at a series whose message is ‘division is bad, kids’ – and a good deal of the media already has – but Guerrilla is an often powerful reminder that racism doesn’t only separate whites from people of colour, but it separates within those groups too, as everyone fights for the second rung of the ladder.
And sadly, it still seems many still need to learn that. Most of them won’t watch Guerrilla, right enough, but that’s a different story.
Guerrilla is available to Sky and Now TV customers now.1920 Views
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.