Film

Looking Back: A Review of John Ridley's Controversial Mini-Series, 'Guerrilla'

In this review by Sabo Kpade, John Ridley’s mini-series, 'Guerrilla,' is an amalgam of facts, factoids and fiction.

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 sabo.kpade@gmail.com

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Photo by KOLA SULAIMON/AFP via Getty Image

#EndSARS: 1 Year Later And It's Business As Usual For The Nigerian Government

Thousands filled the streets of Nigeria to remember those slain in The #LekkiTollGateMassacre...while the government insists it didn't happen.

This week marks 1 year since Nigerians began protests against police brutality and demanded an end to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The #EndSARS protests took the world by storm as we witnessed Nigerian forces abuse, harass and murder those fighting for a free nation. Reports of illegal detention, profiling, extortion, and extrajudicial killings followed the special task force's existence, forcing the government to demolish the unit on October 11th, 2020. However, protestors remained angered and desperate to be heard. It wasn't until October 20th, when soldiers opened fire on demonstrators at Lekki tollgate in the country's capital, Lagos, that the protests came to a fatal end. More than 56 deaths from across the country were reported, while hundreds more were traumatized as the Nigerian government continued to rule by force. The incident sparked global outrage as the Nigerian army refused to acknowledge or admit to firing shots at unarmed protesters in the dead of night.

It's a year later, and nothing has changed.

Young Nigerians claim to still face unnecessary and violent interactions with the police and none of the demands towards systemic changes have been met. Fisayo Soyombo the founder of the Foundation for Investigative Journalism, told Al Jazeera, "Yes, there has not been any reform. Police brutality exists till today," while maintaining that his organization has reported "scores" of cases of police brutality over this past year.

During October 2020's protests, Nigerian authorities turned a blind eye and insisted that the youth-led movement was anti-government and intended to overthrow the administration of current President Muhammadu Buhari. During a press conference on Wednesday, in an attempt to discredit the protests, Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed hailed the Nigerian army and police forces for the role they played in the #EndSARS protests, going as far as to say that the Lekki Toll Massacre was a "phantom massacre with no bodies." These brazen claims came while protesters continued to gather in several major cities across the country. The minister even went on to shame CNN, Nigerian favorite DJ Switch as well as Amnesty International, for reporting deaths at Lekki. Mohammed pushed even further by saying, "The six soldiers and 37 policemen who died during the EndSARS protests are human beings with families, even though the human rights organizations and CNN simply ignored their deaths, choosing instead to trumpet a phantom massacre."

With the reports of abuse still coming out of the West African nation, an end to the struggle is not in sight. During Wednesday's protest, a journalist for the Daily Post was detained by Nigerian forces while covering the demonstrations.

According to the BBC, additional police units have been set up in the place of SARS, though some resurfacing SARS officers and allies claim to still be around.

Young Nigerians relied heavily on social media during the protests and returned this year to voice their opinions around the first anniversary of an experience that few will be lucky enough to forget.



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