sat 13/08/2022

Guerrilla review – 'it takes itself fantastically seriously' | reviews, news & interviews

Guerrilla review – 'it takes itself fantastically seriously'

Guerrilla review – 'it takes itself fantastically seriously'

Racism and revolution in 1970s London

Marcus (Babou Ceesay) and Jas (Freida Pinto) prepare to rise up

Devised and written by John Ridley, the Oscar-winning writer of 12 Years a Slave, Guerrilla (Sky Atlantic) takes us back to London, 1971.

The story is set among a group of black activists agitating against racism and police brutality, and the city is portrayed as a shabby, smouldering dystopia about to erupt into apocalyptic violence.

Was this really how it was? I suspect not, even though the show brandishes the 1971 Immigration Act as a kind of state-sponsored manifesto of race hatred. What the Milwaukee-born Ridley seems to have done is transplant the Chicago riots of 1968 and an American Black Power sensibility to our capital city, and then light the blue touchpaper. In fact, his original plan was apparently to write a series about America’s Black Panthers. This may explain why one of his protagonists, a jailed radical called Dhari (Nathaniel Martello-White), comes over like a mash-up of Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X as he pontificates about struggle, resistance and revolution.

The hatchet-faced constabulary club Julian to death

It feels a bit like Life on Mars rewritten by Public Enemy, though it’s fertile ground for some lurid if unsubtle drama, and having Idris Elba on board as both co-producer and actor (he plays a more philosophical, peaceable character called Kent Fue) gives it some home-town roots. Sadly, Idris isn’t the focal point of the piece. Pride of place goes to Jas Mitra (Freida Pinto, of Slumdog Millionaire), a nurse working at Hammersmith hospital but about to experience a revolutionary apotheosis, and Marcus Hill (Babou Ceesay), a mild-mannered English teacher continually being knocked back at job interviews by sneering white supremacists (eg “you want to teach English? I’ve got a nice van-driver’s job for you”).

Meanwhile, over on the law enforcement side, our oppressed resisters come up against a shadowy and ruthless Special Branch, embodied by DCI Nicholas Pence (Rory Kinnear) and DI Liam Cullen (Daniel Mays, struggling with a fatal hair and moustache combo). These two are attached to the Black Power Desk, a secret unit designed to combat black activism which really existed, though possibly not quite like this. The series’ major action is set in motion when Pence, a hard-boiled racist imported from Rhodesia, primes a small army of super-thuggish policemen to target Julian, a civil rights organiser, when he leads a demonstration against the National Front (“the National Front is a Nazi front,” goes the chant). The hatchet-faced constabulary then obligingly club Julian to death in the street, as though this was routine procedure for the Met in the early Seventies (Kinnear and Mays, pictured below).

Guerilla - Rory Kinnear & Daniel MaysThe upshot is, Jas and Marcus become so inflamed by the injustice of everything that they suddenly decide to buy a gun from their flimsily-drawn neighbourhood IRA terrorist and bust Dhari out of prison. As the series progresses, Jas will morph into an alternative Leila Khaled with an infusion of Ulrike Meinhof, and swap her nurse’s uniform for stylish hats, sunglasses and a submachine gun. “We’re so fucking cool,” as she puts it, enraptured by radical chic. Guerrilla wants to say weighty things and takes itself fantastically seriously, but its American roots keep showing through and it gets too many of the important things wrong.


A smouldering dystopia about to erupt into apocalyptic violence


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article


The story at the time, if memory serves, was the through and through open racism of the police force. It was not a hidden story but a public scandal.

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters