Guerrilla: a complicated and timely UK political drama

12 Years A Slave's John Ridley has a new UK drama out on Sky Atlantic today. Here's what we learned at the launch...

Politically charged shows hoping to make an impact on audiences are in a uniquely difficult position. Be too connected to current events and face the inevitable backlash and skittish executives, but separate too far from the real world struggles of people across the world and face the chance of the story not feeling relevant to the wider public.

For the most part Guerrilla – a new co-production from Sky Atlantic and Showtime, written and directed by Oscar-winner John Ridley and executive produced by Idris Elba – tries to hit that sweet spot in the middle, setting its drama against the backdrop of the black power movement in 1970s England and the considerable fallout from the 1971 immigration act. It’s a period piece, but couldn’t feel more timely.

Speaking at the show’s recent London premiere, Ridley said: “This is a story that, in some ways, I grew up with. I’m a child of this era and these individuals, the iconography, elements of the black power movement, but also the consequences. It’s one thing to be led by your passions but sometimes our passions have unintended consequences. It was very important for me to tell a story that was about people, about immediacy, about connectivity and about an environment of oppression where in some ways there’s a collective psychosis.

These things don’t work unless, in some ways, there’s a lot of different people in a lot of different states who are tasked with maintaining a system that oppresses people. It wasn’t about straw people – the police are all bad and civil rights activists are all good – it’s complicated, and one of the great things about working with Sky and Showtime in America was that they welcome complicated individuals.”

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Dubbed by Ridley as “about history, and lives, and lives that matter”, it’s clear that the intention behind Guerrilla was partially to provide commentary on our current climate, with tensions around race relations in the US and elsewhere – including the UK – at an all time high.

“Unfortunately we see across the country and around the world people devolving into violence and I think we need to talk about consequences,” Ridley continued. “This is a show very much about [what happens] if we don’t engage and we don’t appreciate individuals and if we don’t understand one another. If we lose the capacity to see ourselves in other people then we will devolve into these things.”

Executive producer and co-star Idris Elba (whose favourite Jason Statham movie is Snatch, in case you were wondering) echoes this commitment to presenting the complex human beings behind the world events, adding:

“The story’s huge and small at the same time. There’s a beautiful and very detailed analysis of the UK and the culture at the time, and there is a wider international story that resonates with cultures outside. I was attracted to my character’s weakness, to the complexity of being non-committal and at the same time seemingly being ‘the guy’.”

The show has faced controversy for its decision to cast Freida Pinto, an Indian woman, as the female lead instead of a black woman. On this, comments made at the premiere have been widely reported on (see this Shadow and Act article for a more detailed account). The decision was defended by Ridley, who stressed that he’d wanted a woman of colour in the female lead.

Speaking about her character, Pinto said: “I play this woman who has a real restlessness in her to do something about that political climate. Her character really wants to actually do something as opposed to simply talking about things and I feel like, as Brandon Scott (who plays Leroy) described her in an interview, she’s a ‘gentle ticking time bomb’. She’s just bubbling and so volatile at this stage in her journey as a revolutionary because it’s all inside and it’s explosive.

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There are a lot of female revolutionaries that we haven’t yet seen in film and television and I think hopefully this will start a new wave. A lot of women who led revolutions are very powerful, in history we have Joan of Arc or in India Rani lakshmibai who sprung a revolution during British colonialism. I feel like these characters need to be celebrated in equal measure to male revolutionaries. Let’s see more of them.”

Pinto stars alongside Babou Ceesay as Marcus Hill – a real-life figure who sadly passed away in between filming and release – Jas’ lover and political partner.

“Being part of this line even if it is a fictional account does give you a sense of purpose and a sense of pride,” Ceesay said. “I’m so happy to be part of this team.”

He continued: “John [Ridley] said something very interesting at the beginning while I was approaching it from an actor’s point of view. He said, ‘it’s not so much of a transformation, but him becoming himself’. The idea that you play a part in society and over time you let go of the facade, so the distance between what you think and who you are reduces.”

After working on high-profile films such as 12 Years A Slave, Ridley was excited about working on the small screen again with Guerrilla and, when asked whether he’d prefer for people to binge-watch the series or watch week to week (it is being released all at once in the UK, but released traditionally for US audiences), he said:

“What’s great about Guerrilla is that you’re talking about a six-part film – you’re not constrained by, maybe, two hours. There are things you need to get to rather immediately that in television you can take a little bit more time on. One of the phrases you hear around television now is ‘slow burn’. Back in the day nobody wanted to hear about that, but now one of the things people are really excited about is taking the time, letting the audience arrive to certain things as opposed to immediacy.”

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All episodes of Guerrilla are available from 13 April exclusively on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV.