Guerrilla Episode 1 Review

From John Ridley, writer of 12 Years A Slave, comes 1970s London-set race relations drama Guerrilla. Here's our take on episode one...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Guerrilla Episode 1

“You’re soldiers now,” a character tells Jas (Freida Pinto) and Marcus (Babou Ceesay), two formerly peaceful protesters who’ve just violently broken a man out of prison, at the end of Guerrilla’s first episode. There’s no turning back, and things are only going to get harder.

If it hadn’t become clear over the previous 40 or so minutes, this isn’t a show about how sitting down and talking about injustices will solve things, or how all sides are valid. It isn’t a story meant to be cathartic for a modern audience, and it doesn’t for a second pander to viewers with no knowledge of either the black power movement of the 1970s or the hardships experiences by many in 2017.

In this first episode we’re introduced to Jas and Marcus, two lovers who, within an hour of screen time, go from attending peaceful protests to buying a gun and using it to break out an imprisoned radical. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and it’s immediately clear that the story John Ridley – writer and director of the majority of Guerrilla’s episodes – wants to tell is one of escalation in the face of rising odds.

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Protests and rallies, and ones that include police brutality and displays of white supremacy, have once again become part of the iconography of an era, and Guerrilla evokes that directly to tie the period events to those seen in the audience’s own lives. It’s both a cautionary tale and a scathing look at the state of the world – unlike many period dramas, there is no comfort in seeing how bad things used to be, when history is in danger of repeating.

And that’s where the show gets its palpable sense of urgency, helped along by some fantastic performances and an unflinching look at how extremism might take root.

On the side of the police there’s Rory Kinnear’s Pence, heading up the dedicated front against our protagonists and their allies, yet using black informants and appearing to have fathered a child with a black woman. In this show, no one is simple and everyone has a story worth digging into.

A lot has been made of the lack of black women in leading roles, even though Zawe Ashton’s character promises to be a bigger presence as we go forwards, and it’s a noticeable omission. As excellent as Pinto is – and she is undoubtedly the highlight of this first episode – the lack of speaking roles for black women around her leave a vital perspective out of a story that should revolve around them. No matter what the intention was, it’s a puzzling decision and one that hurts the final product.

That said, the fact that the show chooses to tell this particular tale with a woman at the centre makes it infinitely more interesting, with Jas the instigator of the couple’s more extreme acts early on much to the protestations of a more passive Marcus. She fights, she swears and she smuggles a test tube of broken glass inside her vagina. A shrinking violet she is not.

Immigration is the background issue, with the 1971 immigration act looming over the characters as they attempt to fight for the most basic rights. While there are those who are fighting to overthrow a corrupt system (educating prisoners to change the world upon release is the best option, they propose), others are simply wishing for decent housing, jobs and a way to feed their families.

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It’s a struggle almost anyone can relate to, with the long term battles seeming less important in the face of immediate hardship. A story about outsiders fighting from within, the series explores the dichotomy of being an immigrant in Britain – are you are citizen, or merely a visitor?

Issues are mentioned here and are perhaps in store for deeper exploration later, such as the penal system as a modern form of slavery (see Ava Duvernay’s 13th for an excellent look at this) and the targeted attacks on members of the cause from a secret department of the police dubbed the ‘black power desk’.

Stylistically, Guerrilla shares a lot of flourishes with Ridley’s other series, American Crime. Extreme close-ups, lapsed time, disembodied dialogue and extended moments of silence all add to the dual feeling that this is happening right now but also as someone’s somewhat mis-remembered experience.

It all adds up to a very interesting look at a past that resembles our present more than we’d like. Even more notably, it’s a period of history that not many people know about, and that fact makes Guerrilla an even more fascinating presence on television. Despite some odd choices, the strong performances and an authoritative voice behind the camera make this a recommendable yet uncomfortable watch.

Read Caroline’s Guerrilla launch report here.


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