Racial tensions in 1970s London are set to boil over, as a couple find themselves at the heart of a conflict about to turn brutal.
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20 Dec 2019 - 10:28 AM  UPDATED 20 Dec 2019 - 10:28 AM

What turns an activist into a radical? It’s an increasingly topical question, as protest movements around the world find their agendas sidelined or ignored by those in power. Guerrilla may be a look at the turbulent recent past, but the story of people forced to take action against a system actively hostile to them? It could be ripped from today’s headlines.

When we first meet Marcus (Babou Ceesay) and Jas (Freida Pinto), they’re a quiet, left-leaning couple just wanting to help out. It’s London in 1971, so “helping out” means teaching prisoners⁠—Marcus is looking for work as an English teacher; Jas works at a hospital⁠—and reading a bunch of fashionable left-wing books.

All that changes when Julian (Nicholas Pinnouck), a friend of theirs, is killed by the police. It’s basically an assassination; a brutal scene. Suddenly Marcus and Jas’ mild activism doesn’t seem anywhere near enough.

 

What comes next transforms them from concerned citizens into enemies of the state. Armed with a gun and with an ambulance driver as a hostage, they manage to free Dhari (Nathaniel Martello-White), a militant activist, from custody at a hospital. But just being free isn’t enough for Dhari. He wants to resume the fight. And it’s too late for Marcus and Jan to decide how deeply they want to get involved⁠—they’re already in it up to their necks.

Creator, writer and director John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) was inspired by the real-life activism of British Black Panther (BBP) members Farrukh Dhondy and Darcus Howe. Both of them served as consultants on the show. Dhondy was also asked to be a script editor. Other BBP members were also consulted about the series, while the character Jas was inspired by BBP member Mala Sen, a member of the Race Today Collective.

There’s a lot packed into this six-part series. There are many viewpoints on offer, too. While Marcus and Jas aren’t exactly on the same page⁠—it’s clear right from the start that Indian-born Jas is almost eager to take things as far as she can⁠—they’re both increasingly committed to violent action as a reasonable reaction to state oppression. Against that is Jas’s ex, Kent Fue (Idris Elba), who becomes a non-violent political leader in opposition to their increasingly heavy-handed tactics, only to find himself torn between an academic community looking to denounce violence and those increasingly drawn to Jas’s high-profile resistance.

Set against them is Nicholas Pence (Rory Kinnear), a detective at the Met’s (real-life) Black Power Desk. Unashamedly racist (presumably that’s why he got the job), he’s the kind of police officer who can and does justify his brutal tactics as being for “their own good”. His racism is so offhand and intrinsic to who he is, it’s chilling above and beyond his role as the face of the police force hunting Marcus and Jas down. He’s an uncaring, inhuman system personified, and it’s a masterful performance from Kinnear.

Ridley is determined to cover all the bases here, both with a range of characters holding wildly differing views and with a solid grounding in the prejudices of the time. When we first meet Marcus, he’s going around looking for work, repeatedly being knocked back by white men who more often than not tell him manual work is all he’s good for. Combined with an authentically gritty look at London’s underbelly, it vividly sets the scene for an environment ripe for unrest.

But as the series progresses, Jas increasingly Jas becomes its heart. The forces of law and order are all around, and it’s clear from the beginning they’re not messing about. For Marcus, their constant vigilance and growing readiness to fight fire with fire sits uneasy. Jas embraces it; there’s a sense here that with more to lose (and this series doesn’t shy away from the sexism of the time), Jas knows that there’s no half measures if she wants to stay in this fight.

Jas might fall for the glamour of the revolutionary life, but the series never does. The tension is constantly ratcheting up as their methods lurch towards the extreme, with the constant threat of state violence (firmly established right from the beginning) is a dark cloud looming over everything they say and do. The series never buys in to the idea that what they’re doing is the right thing; Pence is a hateful villain, but using his tactics against him isn’t the way either

The political may be personal and state oppression is a dehumanising evil, but Guerrilla never takes its eye off the personal cost of violence. It’s a knife edge thriller and a gripping look at characters cracking under the strain; violence might be at the forefront, but it’s not the only path to change.

Season 1 of Guerrilla  is available to stream at SBS On Demand. 

Follow the author here: @morrbeat

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