Six episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
John Ridley’s new limited series, Guerrilla, is a six-episode look at black activists in 1970s London who quickly become violent revolutionaries in order to effect what they view as meaningful change. It’s also a love story held up to these extreme circumstances, as a character drama that is as heavy on the exposition as it is on the chaotic depiction of a time that no longer feels all that long ago.
Our main characters are Jas (Freida Pinto) and Marcus (Babou Ceesay), an interracial couple who first set out to free radical black activist leader Dhari (Nathaniel Martello-White). When one of their friends is violently murdered by British police, the lovers decide to rescue Dhari by force, thus kicking off a slew of tightly compromising efforts to form a guerrilla cell in London.
Guerrilla is a show that seems quite content with its lack of heroes and villains, instead allowing any and all characters to have heavy shades of both. The desperation is effectively told in the writing, as Ridley (12 Years a Slave and American Crime) brings out some of the best performances in his career, which is no small effort. Idris Elba, who’s also an executive producer, offers his own limited role as a former love interest of Jas who offers the counterbalance to her and Marcus’s growing extremism.
What works best in Guerrilla is its ability to entertain through filler. Much of the series explores the machinations of what goes on in between the more public bombings and instances of police brutality that were prevalent in the 70s. Ridley provides a close look at the inner workings of how these groups start and are operated, sometimes at a fault to the pacing of what’s already a short series.
There are also various attempts to humanize the show’s closest thing to a full villain in Pence (Rory Kinnear), the leader of a police unit dedicated to stamping out black activism. He’s a monster in his actions, but the show tries to pay his contradictory ideology lip service through frequent interactions with informants and an Irish “good cop” who questions their actions with every step.
While Guerrilla has all the great writing and production design of a wonderful drama, it also suffers from some blatantly absurd creative choices that manage to undermine much of the show’s clout, otherwise. Specifically, Ridley’s decision to cast an Indian woman as the lead instead of a black actress in this historical fiction feels like a slight against the role played by black women in this era and beyond. Though there are black women in less prominent roles, including ones less extreme as the revolutionaries, it’s absolutely a shame that Guerrilla refuses to bring their perspective to the forefront as deserved.
True, there were Indian activists in real life, but it’s clear that Ridley chose to insert his own experiences into the show’s drama (his wife is Japanese) at the expense of portraying authenticity that this type of sensitive, polarizing material requires. For that reason, much of Guerrilla is simply hard to watch in how it erases key perspectives that would have made the miniseries arguably more resonant.
None of that is to say that Pinto and the rest of the cast don’t exude their roles well, especially against a setting that is both morally relative and unique in its lack of “romance” for a show that carries itself on the back of a romantic couple. The relationship in question is frequently under attack by external forces, and despite fleeting moments of affection between the leads, there’s little hope to be had in how the show unfolds through their perspective, adding to the various tragedies that are brought to light.
There’s enough to like in Guerrilla for a binge, but that comes at the price of some major caveats. Still, it’s competently made and quite revealing in its telling of political dealings between guerrillas, socialists, and other groups that are typically whispered about in between pages of history books. Perhaps it’s the ambiguity of the entire piece that helps it evade some of the biting criticisms of its unfortunate casting decisions, and it’s not as if the show is coming out at a time when racial tensions have been resolved in the last 40 years (far from it). During a day and age when political tension and fragmentation that involves both Brexit and the era of Trump are frequently on the minds of audiences across the West, Guerrilla at least provides an interesting reminder of how far we’ve come and have yet to go.
Despite some promising performances and incredible writing, Guerrilla is ultimately dragged down by its own tone-deaf casting.