Sky Atlantic’s six-part drama Guerrilla is an unsettling yet magnetic watch.
Written by John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), Guerrilla is the story of the British Black Power movement in early-1970s London. Sort of.
Jas (Freida Pinto) and Marcus (Babou Ceesay) are a politically-minded couple brooking daily racial abuse from police to job centre officers. But a friend’s violent death prompts them to break Dhari (Nathaniel Martello-White), a political prisoner and radical, out of jail. The three go on the run as relationships and loyalties are tested. While their cause violently crumbles round them. The only logical peg along the line of fracturing characters is Kent (Idris Elba), Jas’s cerebral ex-boyfriend who can’t quite let her go.
Fact or fiction
Entertainment disguised as historical retellings is often an unreliable narrator. However, the fact is that the little-known Black Power Desk existed in the Met Police, employed to eradicate black activism. Rory Kinnear and Daniel Mays play the Desk inspectors intent on finding the missing trio. The power-shifting subplot between the two, and the using and betraying of people, is adroitly thread thicker and thicker as events unfold. Until it suddenly snaps.
Noteworthy performances are rife. For example, Mays’ transformation from good cop to über-meanie is startling. Though seeing Pinto unspool from caring nurse to complicit terrorist deserves particular praise.
Black and bats
The controversy over casting Pinto, an Indian, as the female lead instead of using a black woman smothers the show’s real hot potato: Jas and co’s recourse to guns, blood and bombs is pure fiction. No British Black Power movement ever used aggression — only peaceful protests. Whether or not Ridley intended visual shock tactics as a metaphor for the times or Neilson ratings is a question-in-waiting. (Lubed baseball bats mid-torture only have one resting-place.) It’s revisionism. Still, on screen, it’s cogent.