Guerrilla review: A 1970s gold rush of radicalism

What’s good enough for Derry is good enough for Brixton, in Sky’s tough new show on an overlooked British history

Guerrilla ties to hit a number of moving targets

Guerrilla ties to hit a number of moving targets

 

The most subversive streak within John Ridley’s Guerrilla (Sky Atlantic, Thursday, 9pm) a transatlantic co-production between Sky and Showtime, is to depict the early 1970s as a gold rush of radicalism – of still inchoate ideologies and nascent causes looking for alliance. When, early in the series, a handful of black British revolutionaries attempt to form a cell, they go shopping for assistance from likeminded movements. Deemed insufficiently Marxist-Leninist by the Baader-Meinhoff Group, they are advised to try a self-determinist group like the PLO instead. What difference does it make? “We all benefit from destabilisation.”

It’s a grimly comic scene about ideals and actions in a series that otherwise sees radicalisation as the result of systematic oppression, police brutality and a kind of desperate improvisation.

Marcus (Babou Ceesay) and Jas (Freida Pinto), an young interracial couple, start out as earnest activists, championing the incarcerated Dhari (Nathaniel Martello-White) whose radical, Maoist writings have made him an underground phenomenon. When another friend is killed by forces within the Special Branch Black Power Desk, Marcus and Jas spring Dhari from prison, with irreversibly violent consequences. Whether they are now soldiers or stooges, however, only history, or at least further episodes, will tell.

Pinto’s prominence has drawn criticism from black rights groups, uneasy to find an Asian freedom fighter leading a narrative of black power. It may not help that Ridley’s camera is clearly fixated with Pinto, idling on her face during pivotal dialogues. “Don’t reduce me to my looks,” Jas tells Kent, a similarly obsessed, if cooler-tempered artist played by Idris Elba. That seems like good advice. Ridley’s attention feels deliberate, though, making Jas both Guerrilla’s primary focus and its central question: leading the charge, yet side-lined by the men, she is the more radical, but is dismissed as merely chic.

The show is elsewhere fascinated with tentatively overlapping political concerns, where black activists turn to a mercenary IRA for assistance (“What they’re doing in Derry is coming to Brixton, ” someone cheers). Ridley even allows one curiously American phrase a much broader currency here, where ignominious police act “under the colour of authority”. It’s hard to decide from what position Guerrilla is shooting, but that’s the colour it places in the crosshairs.

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