Or Nah? is a feature where we watch and review the first episode of a new TV show. We’ll let you know if it’s worth checking out. As always, these reviews are the opinion of the reviewer, but we’ll try to adequately explain why you should or shouldn’t give the show a chance and provide shows for comparison.
When I first heard about Guerrilla in the fall of last year, I was so excited about the possibility for the Black British struggle for civil rights to finally get the spotlight it deserves, but in the form of a drama. While such issues as the Brixton Riots in the 1980s are more well known, racial tension in the UK flared up from time to time for most of the 20th century. Guerrilla is set in the early 1970s where the Black Power movement and other militant civil rights movements were increasing in numbers and media attention. Early into the show, through the words of Dhari, an imprisoned Black Power activist (Nathaniel Martello-White), we are reminded of the issue at the very heart of the show:
“But when you’re Black and British there’s a constant struggle to understand who you really are. We are the children of the colonies who built this empire on the backs of their labour. Strong in our pride it’s only when we came to what we built, we were forced to question who we really are. A citizen or visitor? A countryman or just an interloper?”
Just before hearing these words we are introduced to Marcus, an unemployed teacher (Babou Ceesay-Lewis/National Treasure). He’s being interviewed at an employment center and is rejected because the interviewer brands him a troublemaker for having dared to have a different opinion than the administration at his previous school. In this same scene, we briefly see a Black woman standing in front of a section of jobs labeled ‘domestic’. Throughout the first episode there are various scenes, both long and short, that provide insight into the difficulties of being Black, or anything other than white and British, in 1970s UK.
We see Marcus and his girlfriend Jas (Frieda Pinto) enjoying a night out with friends in a club. Both couples are interracial, and this catches the eye of a group of police. Marcus is black and Jas is of south-east Asian descent; Julian (Nicholas Pinnock/Marcella;Fortitude) is black and his girlfriend Fallon (Denise Gough/The Fall, Cuffs) is Irish.
The police physically attack Julian and molest Fallon under the guise of a body search. Fallon is harassed for being Irish (during this time there was still a high level of bigotry towards Irish people) and for dating a black man.
A few scenes later, we are introduced to a black police informant who meets with the police. Although we are never told the informant’s name, it is clear that he will play a crucial role in the episode. He is brought to the meeting by a black woman named Kenya (Wunmi Mosaku/Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; Black Mirror). While Kenya stands to the side, the informant meets with Pence (Rory Kinnear/Penny Dreadful; The Casual Vacancy) and Cullen (Daniel Mays/Line of Duty; Rogue One).
The informant reports on Julian and explains that by dating an Irish woman he is threatening the fight for civil rights. We find out that Julian is planning a protest as a peaceful response to a march being planned by the racist white National Front. Of course, Pence and Cullen don’t care about the informant’s reasons for reporting, they just want him to disrupt the rally. The pair ensure this will be done by paying the informant. In a subsequent scene, we find out that the married Cullen is having an affair with Kenya, and the pair have a child.
Marcus, Jas, Julian, and Fallon all attend the protest. While the crowd peacefully responds to the racists’ march, Cullen gathers a group of police and shows them a picture of their target, Julian. After the informant incites a disturbance, the police proceed to beat Julian to death. His peaceful protest was viewed as a large enough threat to kill him.
During a visit to prison, Jas and Michael inform Dhari of Julian’s death and their desire for retribution. Dhari tells the couple that they are out of their depth. He explains that there is a special unit called the ‘Black Power Desk’ which is full of internationally trained police officers who have their eyes out for the likes of Julian and anyone else they view is a threat.
While at work as a nurse, Jas watches a news report which discusses the relationship between Timothy Leary, the Black Panthers, and Brotherhood of Eternal Love. These are the first hints of the international scale of the Black Power movement and the relationships between various radical groups. The news motivates Jas, and she convinces Marcus to make a serious move beyond leading meetings and talking about liberation. After withstanding another insulting interview at the employment center, Marcus agrees to Jas’s suggestion that they break Dhari out of prison. If Dhari escapes prison, he can be held up as a symbol against the increasingly racist and oppressive system. Jas and Marcus meet with an IRA representative, but they cannot afford the £7,000 fee for breaking Dhari out of prison. Instead, the pair devise their own plan and purchase a gun.
Clearly, Jas is the driving force behind the operation. As Jas tells her former lover Kent, (Idris Elba) she must act to make change and as such, her man must do the same. Therefore, she’s chosen Marcus over Kent the artist.
Marcus and Jas break Dhari out of prison by utilizing a plan which includes Jas smuggling a tube of broken glass into the jail via her vagina; and an unplanned hospital shooting. The episode ends at the safehouse where the radio plays in the background and a news report compares Marcus and Jas’s prison breakout to other Black Power movement prison breaks.
The little touches. In the club scene with the two couples, the legendary Femi Kuti and his band play. Kuti’s, father Fela Kuti and his band were an important source of strength and fun for liberation movements in the 1970s and beyond.
The historical links to the various international radical movements shows the complex networks at play in the 1970s. Additionally, the brief news reports peppered throughout the episode provide context and realism. For instance, the Immigration Act of 1971 irrevocably changed the regulations that allowed Commonwealth citizens to stay in the UK. Arguably, this paved the way for Brexit and current immigration regulations.
The political relevance and relationship to today’s social and political climate is glaringly clear. The London premier of the first episode prompted a great question from members of the audience: Where are the Black women? As the creator, John Ridley’s answer to this question did little to inspire the hopes of those seeking authenticity in this portrayal.
Black women were prominent in the Black Power movement in the UK, US, and elsewhere. Nonetheless, the only inkling of a potential character that could fit this bill, is in the form of Zawe Ashton. We briefly see her at one of the community meetings urging the crowd to listen to Marcus’s point. She has the potential to be a character that adequately represents the important role Black women historically and contemporarily play in civil rights movements. Without a Black woman lead who is an integral part of the movement, the series will have weakened itself and failed to contribute in an accurate and meaningful way.
Watch This if You Like
Black and British: A Forgotten History, The Black Power Mixtape, Moses Jones, Black is the New Black
Guerrilla S1E1 | Starring: Idris Elba, Frieda Pinto, Babou Ceesay, Rory Kinnear, Daniel Mays, Nathaniel Martello-White, and Denise Gough