DIASPORA—Now out on DVD, John Ridley’s Guerrilla is an amalgam of facts, factoids and fiction.
Written and directed by Ridley, the 6-part mini-series is primarily about how a group of civil rights activist from the British Black Panthers set about to challenge and overturn racist English immigration laws of the 70s.
The absence of black women in the lead roles and the depiction of those in the supporting cast has been a matter of much debate and rancor.
On one level, it is absurd that we look to fiction in films and books to confirm, and even enshrine real life events: as though every pain felt and every blood spilled and any laughter, not passed through a fictional prism, has yet to fully achieved its complete relevance.
Yes, there is no law that requires Ridley to provide prominent roles for women, based on those from the British-Black Panthers, but there is a moral duty to do so.
One crucial difference between the British Black Panthers and its American forebear is that the Brits never took up arms, while militarized self-defense was central to that which was founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton.
Ridley has chosen to not only ignore this fact by arming his own British Panthers, he has gone further to make at least one character, Dhari (a convincingly shift Nathaniel Martello-White), occasionally violent.
One fact of fiction is that one does as one pleases. If Ridley has the creative freedom to raise the stakes, however he wishes, so as to make for an engaging drama, he surely has the scope to portray many or no black women. It is also his own time and effort that is plowed into the project so he has a sturdy defense in this sense.
The problem then becomes a moral one of rendering truth. This, to start with, is a bizarre expectation we have of storytellers, especially one who has been rewarded with an Oscar for doing so. Yet, it is one that must be demanded of him, and any storytellers who chisel blocks of historical facts into hours of fiction—if only to limit or guard against the too many untruths.
The decision to leave out (as different from eliminating) the black women from The Movement, in Guerrilla, is an untruth. The contributions of Darcus Howe, Linton-Kwesi Jones, Obi Egbuna, Mala Sen, Farrouk Ghandry, are no more important that those of Olive Morris and Altheia Jones-LeCointe. Choosing to omit them from this canvas is tantamount to an ethical failure in storytelling.
These charges are levied against Ridley the story-teller, not Ridley the individual. Only his decision-making is on trial here, not his beliefs or moral constitution which many couldn’t confidently attest to.
Invoking his marriage to his wife of Japanese heritage at a London Q&A session was given as an inspiration for making his leads a Black and Asian couple.
True and touching as this was, it also has the inverse effect of exposing him to even more tension from those who will see this as a cop out, or a contributing factor to why he hasn’t prided the likes of Morris and Jones-LeCointe in his show.
The vitriol this has drawn distracts from what is truly remarkable tv, in an era awash with the stuff. The plotting, between scenes and episodes, and the clever characterization make for a gripping watch.
Ridley’s Guerrilla is presented as a tv series that deals with confrontation. The charged title invokes racist allusions to apes, combined with the activities of small groups using unconventional fighting methods against larger ones.
One scene, in episode one, perfectly sets up the hot contact points of the story. Two couples—one of a Black man and an Irish woman (Nicholas Pinnock and Denise Gough), and another of a Black man and a South Asian woman (Babou Ceesay and Freida Pinto)—on their way back from a night out are stopped by three English police men.
Of course nothing goes well. The policemen antagonize the group who wisely show restraint. The Irish woman asks for them to be left alone. One of the coppers took this as an affront and strikes her with his baton. She staggers in pain and bleeds from the nose.
The first shock is the ease with which the policeman beats the woman. The next is that a white woman has been physically and sexually violated by a white man, and right before a Black and Asian group. This is uncommon in any films that deal with racial oppression.
More often than not, it is black bodies that are shown being beaten and bloodied, meant as true-life depictions, but which over time has been fetishized by one director after another. Ridley surely knows this and it says a lot about his head for charged drama that he has chosen to put this scene there.
This officer then makes as if to frisk the Irish woman, but ends up molesting her, further deepening her humiliation and that of her boyfriend who has been made to kneel down and watch. This same character is later bludgeoned to death by a policeman.
The cast of horrors is the enduring one of English oppression over Blacks, Asians and the Irish. The writing and directorial choices made in this episode, and elsewhere, are what elevates Ridley’s show above the many others that have tackled the same subject.
All factors taken into account, Ridley scores high marks in delivering good TV, as engaging as any that has been made in this current boom of long-form television. The decision, to relegate Black female leaders to subsidiaries and absenting others altogether, is where he has undoubtedly failed.
Afua Hirsch is a London based writer and broadcaster, and the author of Brit(ish), which will be published Spring 2018.
I ask Hirsch if, away from the controversy, she has enjoyed the series to which she says “I struggled to find characters I could relate to.” Frieda Pinto’s character “Jas” is based on Mala Sen and Hirsch praises the casting and the alliance of Blacks and Asians under the political banner of “Black” in 70s England which was needed to combat the country’s racist immigration laws.
To Hirsch, Jas has been portrayed as “the mastermind, fundamental to the story,” but there are “no black women with an equivalent voice.”
One of Ridley’s defense is that “if there are aspects of my show that are difficult to understand or accept, I feel like I have done my job”—a clever response meant to also gag further interrogation.
Hirsch believes we all have a “shared history” and that “just telling the story is important,” but she finds Ridley’s own defence as “more troubling” especially in the UK where there aren’t “luxuries of diversity of stories.”
Hirsch adds that, “I have less trust that he’s coming from a position of consciousness in telling the black power story, and it would be wrong to assume he would win that back by just including a prominent black woman in the next series. Having said that, I had a lot of goodwill towards him based on previous projects and that’s not all gone, either.”
Sabo Kpade is a regular OkayAfrica contributor. His short story Chibok was shortlisted for the London Short Story Prize 2015. His first play, Have Mercy on Liverpool Street was longlisted for the Alfred Fagon Award. He lives in London. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org