There’s a telling exchange of dialogue in the new Showtime series Guerrilla between the two lead characters, a nice Indian nurse named Jas (Freida Pinto) and an even nicer unemployed English teacher named Marcus (Babou Ceesay), who become unlikely radical political activists in early 1970s London. It first occurs after their success at breaking a black revolutionary author out of prison, and goes something like this:
“We are so fucking cool.”
These fatuous self-congratulations indicate the basic level of contempt in which the show’s creative team holds political militancy. These characters become impossibly skilled revolutionaries overnight, and in spite of the high body count among their friends, they remain at the same level of dopey, shallow engagement with a cause that never gets articulated with any clarity.
It’s a shame, considering that this six-episode series is based on the historical reality of England’s Black Power movement. As Paul Field points out in Jacobin, the show highlights events such as the creation of Scotland Yard’s Black Power Desk, designed to destroy the movement.
Field generously sees the show as a kind of alternate history “posing the question: ‘What would have happened if armed radicals had confronted the police in 1971?’ ” I see the show less generously, as a regrettably dopey fictionalization laid over an inherently dramatic history.
The first episode is maddening, given that our protagonists are the most ridiculous political militants imaginable. Their middle-class naiveté rolls off them in waves, so it’s quite a set of cartoonish character arcs to see them become gun-wielding guerrilla radicals in the span of an hour.
The climax of that episode features the liberation from prison of their favorite author, Dhari Bishop, (Nathaniel Martello-White), a comical impossibility given their absolute lack of skills, resources or experience. They get an Irish guy to help them, which I assume is supposed to lend this fantastical event credibility by alluding to the legendary series of prison breaks actually pulled off by the Irish Republican Army throughout the 1970s.
Up to that point, I’d been trying to stick with the show, muttering encouragement like, “Okay, there you go!” when an occasionally believable moment was pulled off. For example, when our two naïfs take their first baby steps as revolutionaries, they manage to consult a top IRA official, who outlines the complex maneuvers necessary for a prison break, requiring no fewer than seven people.
“Well, five, plus us,” Jas pipes up.
“I don’t know what the hell you two would be good for,” he sneers.
It was a nice moment. One for Team Reality.
Nevertheless, our daring duo engineers a plan to get their prisoner to the hospital by having him eat glass. They then totter in quavering out orders. Everything goes miraculously well except for having to shoot somebody, who doesn’t die. Then it turns out they never made any plan for where they’d take their fugitive after busting him out. It’s an embarrassing moment for everyone, including the audience.
To be fair, if you can endure the first episode and get on to the rest, it’s not that the show has no impact. Series writer/director John Ridley (American Crime, 12 Years a Slave) pulls off a startling number of effective plot reveals and reversals, and there’s a lot of serious acting talent involved in the show. Rory Kinnear and Daniel Mays are only too convincing as the vicious, torture-reliant Afrikaner and Irish cops. Idris Elba, one of the show’s producers as well as a lead performer, is always excellent, though here he gives himself a strange part as a waffling liberal politician. Slack body postures and weak vocal hesitations don’t exactly play to Elba’s strengths, but he can really rock the vintage sideburns and ’stache.
Guerrilla may seem as though it’s considering the moral and ethical questions surrounding armed resistance. But the show actually makes sure that every stance taken cancels out every other stance with vapid evenhandedness. On the one hand, institutional racism in 1970s London is bad, but on the other hand, so are clumsy attempts by hapless dreamers to lead a guerrilla fight that mostly creates casualties among innocent bystanders. The police are portrayed as despicable thugs in uniform, but our protagonists fall in immediately with some despicable thugs of their own. And so it goes, wearily back and forth.
In the end, there’s no side to be on but that of posterity. We’re encouraged to say, on behalf of our escaping heroes, “Thank God, that’s over!” There is no reminder that the conditions the series deals with are not over, that racism and economic exploitation go on, and that others will have to take up the fight. All the solemn quoting of revolutionary figures at the beginning of each episode is just “cool” top-dressing.
In that sense, Guerrilla is truly a show for our time; it pretends to engage with activist politics that currently have a certain hip cachet that even moronic Pepsi commercials try to appropriate. We can expect more of these pop culture appeals, which ultimately are harmless enough. They spread some general awareness that a proud history of left-wing activism actually exists and is currently inspiring new movements. So probably the best way to enjoy Guerrilla, after the first mortifying episode, is to forget it has any claim on seriousness about political radicalism. Hopefully, it will catalyze your interest in reading up on the actual history of radical movements.