You saw you want a revolution? Maybe you should watch Guerrilla instead.
Showtime’s new series from American Crime creator John Ridley, TV’s ranking poli-sci auteur, is a smart and solemn period piece that indicts unreconstructed post-colonial western society while taking the piss out of anyone who wants to blow it up. The story, a historical fiction, is set in another time and another place, but it speaks to an American present roiled by issues of race, class, immigration, and policing, as well as the proper means to protest and change those problems.
As entertainment, Guerrilla fights a war with itself, torn between allegory and thriller, with characters struggling to be more than just symbols (which is ironic, as symbolic action is a primary concern of the drama). But it often plays like one of those everything-goes-sideways crime thrillers like Breaking Bad or Hell or High Water, about desperate people doing wrong for some well-rationalized right, losing control and trying to regain it by doubling down on the dubious thing they’re becoming. There’s something of The Americans in Ridley’s new franchise, though Guerrilla lacks any of that show’s wicked wit, to its detriment. But it does have Idris Elba sporting a Playgirl-ready mustachioed beefcake, so there is that.
Guerrilla is set in London, 1971, against a global backdrop of unrest and uprising, from the jungles of Vietnam to the inner cities and college campuses of America. London itself is presented as a hot bed of racial unrest, with native blacks and Indian immigrants chaffing from casual and institutional prejudice. Complaining about it even a little makes you a suspected radical and assures you greater marginalization. Marcus Hill (Babou Ceesay) is an educated Brit of Nigerian heritage who can’t find work doing what he loves, teaching literature at university. The opening scene in Guerrilla finds Marcus applying for a job and explaining that he had been fired from a previous post for objecting to bias. “So you’re a troublemaker,” says the white guy handling the interview and denying him employment. The value of work is one of many themes on Ridley’s huge mind here, as it is in American Crime. If Marcus gets that job, perhaps none of Guerrilla happens.
Jas Mitra (Freida Pinto), a child of immigrants, is a nurse. Her father, a political activist, is serving a life sentence in India; she grieves his absence and fumes over the injustice done to him. Like her boyfriend Marcus, she’s a communist who came of age in the counter-culture sixties. Back in the summer of love, she dated Elba’s Kent, a successful artist of questionable commitment to social justice. His passion for causes might stop at bohemian parties full of heated talk of liberation and hazy-headed free love. Jas dumped him because she needed a man of action — like Marcus and her father.
These relational intrigues are essential to a show that interrogates the motivational make-up of would-be culture-changers. How much is political? How much is personal? Can those two things even be separated? They’re “woke.” Are they self-aware? The characters in Guerrilla are constantly in each other’s faces with these questions, but the women get them more than the men: Ridley shows us that even among allegedly enlightened vanguards of a new society, sexism flourishes. Jas’ intensifying frustration feeds into her blossoming feminism, but Pinto’s performance and the direction plays to all the possibilities, or can’t decide which one to choose. Whether Jas is master of her issues or mastered by them is left for us to decide.
Marcus and Jas have befriended a charismatic convict, Dhari Bishop (Nathaniel Martello-White in an electric turn), who’s developed a following preaching a strident black power gospel emphasizing self-improvement and self-sufficiency. Marcus has organized his hot takes into a red-jacketed manuscript that borrows much from Ho Chi Minh and Mao, The Dragon Will Fly. He and Jas aspire to get Dhari an early release and make him the face of a reform movement that expresses itself through media messages and symbolic, non-violent action.
Their plans evolve, though, when they and another pair of activists – Fallon (Denise Gough), white and Irish, and her boyfriend, Julian (Nicholas Pinnock) – run afoul with thug policemen assigned to Scotland Yard’s racist “Black Power Desk.” Indignity leads to tragedy leads to extreme reaction, all quite credibly, and soon, Marcus and Jas are busting Dhari out of the joint and living underground as public enemies nos. 1-3.
Here, the drama becomes fitful, but in a way that kind of works for the story, as we get lots of scenes of the trio debating about direction and complaining about not doing anything. Marcus tries to stick to the script of symbolic action, Jas becomes converted to a philosophy of random acts of destabilizing violence, and Dhari reveals himself to be more chaotic than anyone realized (but probably should have). Each gains more depth – and changes significantly – as the story unfolds.
There’s nothing romantic about Ridley’s depiction of revolutionary life, and the show is more interesting for it. The wannabe guerrillas quickly discover that the vanguard army subculture is fragmented and competitive, and only the most hard-core and splashiest thrive. Ridley zeroes in on the ironies of this situation. His anti-capitalist subversives – who become dependent on German Marxists for cash and housing – must behave like any good capitalist strivers. They’re still governed by survival-of-the-fittest marketplace forces; they still have to toil for The Man. Improving their lot and moving up the ladder motivates them as much as their ideology, personal damage and relational jealousies. Put another way: their cell is basically a start-up that needs to produce results for angel investors in order to realize an ambition to go public and conquer the world. Guerrilla is basically a really ironic Silicon Valley.
In a story where everyone thinks they’re the hero but no one deserves to be called one, chief inspector Pence (Rory Kinnear) embodies The Man. Yet his arc is as complex as his racism. Married with a drug-addicted teenage son, Pence is an immigrant himself, born and raised in Rhodesia, and he’s brought a world of post-colonial resentments and romantic notions with him to London. He’s juggling a long-term relationship with a black woman, Kenya (Wunmi Mosaku), who is also an informant and a sex worker; their queasy union has recently produced a child. Kinnear does two impressive things at once: he brings his usual nuance to the role, but he doesn’t sand off any of Pence’s edges. Still, the character still comes off as a broad, even cartoonish cut-out of white villainy at first. Episode 2 begins a slow deepening, starting with a key scene involving another major player, his partner, Cullen (Daniel Mays), an Irishman who can empathize with the oppression and persecution of the minority he polices. The push-pull between Pence and Cullen and their respective, competitive bids to prove and exert themselves reflects the combustible dynamics within the cell they seek to bust.
Elba’s portion of the show provides another source of conflict and another expression of mirroring. Something of a celebrity, Kent finds himself drafted into being the public face of an effort by mainline black activists, represented by a character named Omega (Zawe Ashton), who are walking a tricky tightrope: distancing themselves from violent revolutionaries and modeling more “elevated” protests, while not compromising any part of the cause or selling out any person of color. He reluctantly accepts this responsibility as he sees Team Jas engage in actions that threaten all people of color, but his desire to save Jas from herself leads to jeopardy for everyone and risks subverting his identity. Elba fans be warned: His role is small.
Ridley, who directs three of the six episodes and writes all but one (Misan Sagay wrote episode 5), establishes this state of affairs with the same kind of character-driven storytelling that marks his excellent work on American Crime, but can’t equal the show’s scope or briskness. Like Kent, Guerrilla is a lot of talk and not much action, though the action it does have is impactful. The production evokes the period, but doesn’t wallow in it (this isn’t one of those seventies shows with a wall-to-wall super-sounds-of-the-decade soundtrack), maybe due to budget limitations, maybe as part of an effort to get us to see the present in the past. There’s meaning and design to the polished filmmaking. We see the characters reflected in mirrors, their images as cloudy or obscured as their own concept of self. Marcus’ job interview with a representative of the white establishment, whose face is never seen (his back is to the camera) is mirrored with Marcus’ first “job interview” with the German Marxist, whose face is never seen (his back is to the camera). As in American Crime, Ridley is sparing and effective in his use of violence. He knows what matters most, the price paid by victim and perpetrator. The moment in the premiere when Marcus pulls a trigger and his eyes blaze with what-have-I-done horror is searing.
Guerrilla suffers from being an episode too long and for being too conservative with its own tone. Ridley’s TV work skews humorless, and while that works just fine for me in American Crime, there are moments of irony and absurdity in Guerrilla that call out for some small awareness of their darkly comic dimension. While the relational drama is intrinsic to the show’s investigation of revolutionary character, there are some twists and turns that got my eyes rolling. Still, the various storylines coalesce to produce a suspenseful, surprising finale, and the arcs of Marcus and Jas are compelling. They culminate with a line — “I’m so f—ing cool” – that’s layered with uncountable meanings and is absolutely chilling. Watching them evolve – or devolve? – into stone-cold radicals makes for heartbreaking drama that invites valuable reflection on the structure of society, and what it takes and costs to change it, by any means, radical and otherwise. B