Guerrilla might be set in early ’70s London, but its subject matter couldn’t feel more timely.
Written and co-directed by 12 Years a Slave Oscar winner John Ridley, the six-part drama is a thoughtful, at times blisteringly brutal exploration of how seemingly ordinary people could be drawn into a world of radical militancy if pushed far enough. It tells the story of a young couple who, after experiencing an incident of horrific police brutality, are driven to a violent action of their own as they join the war against the Black Power Desk – a Special Branch unit dedicated to quashing all forms of black activism.
Backed by Sky Atlantic, the series is undeniably beautiful in its craft and has a palpable sense of place, painting a grim portrait of 70s London. The cobbled alleys and side streets are unnervingly quiet, while the coloured community gather in dingy apartments and crumbling bars as Richard Nixon’s voice periodically crackles over the radio.
But while the visuals evoke the past, Guerrilla’s themes and cultural issues remain relevant to our times. The series depicts a world fractured by divisions. Authority figures can’t be trusted, a right-wing media is whipping the public into a frenzy with fear mongering, and the colour of a person’s skin or the subject of their religious beliefs is seen as reason enough to brand them a “troublemaker”. You won’t have to look to far to see the parallels with British culture in 2017.
Perhaps keenly aware of our tendency to exist in our own social media-enforced echo chamber, Ridley goes to great lengths to explore all perspectives in the argument, spending plenty of time exploring the private lives of his cast. We see Babou Ceesay’s gentle, well-educated Marcus fighting to remain faithful to his ideals as he struggles to find work; meanwhile his Indian wife Jas (Freida Pinto) grows increasingly frustrated by responding to oppression with ineffective protests. We also see Rory Kinnear’s calculating Special Branch agent playing with his mixed-race son and fantasising about Wunmi Mosaku’s informant before orchestrating the murder of a black activist by sabotaging a peaceful demonstration.
While it’s incredibly uncomfortable to watch (a police raid on a peaceful protest is soberingly violent), it’s also superbly acted. Ceesay and Pinto make for an endearingly affectionate couple, both of whom are quiet and intelligent yet painfully conflicted over how to respond to the injustice that surrounds them, and Idris Elba (who co-produces here) makes fleeting appearances as Jas’ slightly mercurial ex.
The result is a bold, powerfully unsettling drama that dares to push its viewers outside of their comfort zones and challenges them to think about other perspectives. Guerrilla is a searing piece of television and it’s simply impossible to ignore.