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April 18, 2017

Back To The Future

In his new drama series for Showtime, John Ridley looks at ‘70s social justice in the U.K.

Benji Wilson
  • Babou Ceesay, Nathaniel Martello, Freida Pinto

    Chris Harris

Mention the civil rights movement, radical black activism, systemic police corruption, or just race and immigration issues in general, and the assumption is you’re talking about America.

That was what John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Twelve Years a Slave, thought — until work took him to the U.K. a for postproduction on a film about Jimi Hendrix.

“There was a scene set in 1967, where Jimi meets with this activist called Michael X. Working on that film, I began to hear and collect stories about people of color in the U.K., and I saw how their experiences differed from those  of people of color in America. The more I learned, the more determined I became to bring this story to life.”

The kernel that Ridley discovered — and that ultimately inspired Guerrilla, his Showtime limited series debuting April 16 — was that the U.K. Special Branch, charged with matters of national security, ran a “Black Power” desk in the ‘70s to suppress government opposition among  black citizens.

He had already been thinking about a similar  project, set in the U.S. and based on the FBI program few years ago, that targeted Martin Luther King, Jr., black activists and others deemed dangerous to the country. Then Ridley learned that the land of cucumber sandwiches and afternoon tea had a race problem, too.

“I’ll admit, I saw culture in the U.K. differently,” Ridley says. “As a person, I was disappointed to hear about it, but as a storyteller it was an inciting incident.

“We want people to go, ‘This really did happen and we need to be aware of it…. There was a Black Panther party in the U.K., there was a Black Power desk.’ We want people to use elements of our storytelling as a departure point for their own edification — it certainly was for me.”

With Idris Elba on board as both a performer and an executive producer, Ridley created Guerrilla (he’s also an executive producer, writer and the director of three episodes).

Set in a dank, gray London in the early ‘70s, the six-part series tells of a young couple, Jas (Freida Pinto) and Marcus (Babou Ceesay), whose relationship and values are tested when they liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell.

“She’s a fighter, a brilliant heroine,” Pinto says of Jas, a second-generation Indian immigrant. “It’s the sort of role that every actor wants to get her teeth into, especially when we all know that the roles available for minority women and women in general are so unsatisfactory.”

Jas is working as a nurse until a flashpoint at a peaceful protest sparks something within her. “She feels she needs to be doing something more radical to get people’s attention,” Pinto explains.

While her boyfriend is politically engaged, her ex-boyfriend, Kent, a photographer played by Elba, thinks the struggle is better served by art than direct action. The show’s principals emphasize that Guerrilla is a “what-if” drama — one that uses the Black Power desk and the British Black Panthers as a jumping-off point and then asks, What if the movement had become armed and radicalized?

And while the series is a period piece, its depictions of racial tension and misguided government attitudes to immigration are timely.

“The things that we’re talking about in the series are things that we’re hearing about right now,” Pinto says, “whether it’s the women’s march, protesting against the immigration ban in America, or people in the U.K. finally waking up to what Brexit really means.”

Guerrilla was in the works long before the Brexit vote and the equally seismic U.S. presidential election.

Still, Ridley says, “I think it says something when you can take a story that is set 40 years ago and find that it’s very easy for people now to draw conclusions from it about race, about policing, about immigration. Clearly those issues have not only not gone away, but they have become more potent and more politicized.

“When I was a young man,” he continues, “the iconography of the civil rights struggle was about people who were very passionate, who could articulate what they were fighting for and against.

“Those things really resonate when you’re young, but when you get older you learn that these individuals were very human, they were complicated, they were imperfect. Those imperfections are what made them so interesting and so galvanizing. And their actions — and sometimes their inactions — all had consequences. This show is about those consequences.”

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2017

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