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Guerrilla: Tracing the Path of Most Resistance


Guerrilla, John Ridley’s six-part civil rights drama set in 1970s London stars Idris Elba, Freida Pinto, and Babou Ceesay

...history has seldom seemed more engrossing...

Here’s the bad news: A drama set in the early 1970s showing black lives targeted by police officials is disturbingly relevant today. The eye-opener is that the story is set in London. The good news: In the hands of executive producer and star Idris Elba and writer/director/producer John Ridley, history has seldom seemed more engrossing.

The result is Guerrilla, a new six-episode limited series.

The facts: in the early ’70s, Scotland Yard created its own Black Power Desk, an entire police squad devoted to thwarting the then burgeoning black rights movement.

Strangely enough, Guerrilla starts out as a love story. Freida Pinto and Babou Ceesay play Jas and Marcus, a young couple who decide they’ve had enough of being bullied by and cowering from the police only because of the colour of their skin. Their organized resistance goes from protests and social activism to confrontation and violence. They especially cross the line when they set out to liberate a political prisoner, enlisting the aid of a top activist (played by Elba) in their struggles against the Black Power Desk.

When North Americans think of racial strife and civil unrest in the ’60s and ’70s, they usually think of the explosive movements that went on in the United States. This was true even for Ridley, who made his mark with the Oscar-winning movie 12 Years a Slave and who is also the driving force behind the ABC series American Crime.

“This was something I grew up with,” says Ridley, 51, who was fascinated as a youngster by the Black Liberation Army, the Black Panther Party, and the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Finding out that the police in London were targeting blacks in the 1970s, he says, “was a real education for me personally.”

Ridley told reporters gathered in Pasadena, Calif., this year that he first learned of racial tensions in the United Kingdom in the 1970s when he was in London four years ago, doing post-production on a film about Jimi Hendrix.

People in other countries would be surprised to learn of the level of social unrest that existed at the time — even in Canada, Ridley noted. The October Crisis of 1970, which saw then prime minister Pierre Trudeau invoke martial law to quell the Front de libération du Québec, was a searing moment in Canadian history for those old enough to remember it.

Is there a difference between social unrest in the U.K. versus that in North America? Ridley doesn’t think so. “When people are being marginalized or disenfranchised, it really doesn’t matter if it’s about race, religion, creed, or colour.”

Freida Pinto, who was born in Mumbai, India, came to prominence after starring in the British-made feature Slumdog Millionaire. The 32-year-old says the first thing she did when asked to join the cast of Guerrilla was to contact family members who grew up in England and who were old enough to remember the 1970s. “You’d be surprised at how little they knew,” she says.

“I finally get to tell the untold story, a story that needs to be told..."

Pinto caught up with the story through books and documentaries, but the lack of immediate information made her even more determined to be in the series. “I finally get to tell the untold story, a story that needs to be told, a part of history that keeps repeating itself over and over again — and, technically, we don’t ever learn from our mistakes.”

Ridley and Pinto spoke with people involved in the resistance movement in London at the time, both as protestors and as law-enforcement officials. The lack of published materials, says Ridley, was a good thing in that “it forced us to go out to meet people.”

Ridley insists that “it’s not my desire to come into people’s homes and try to preach and draw a one-to-one ratio between what was going on then and what is going on now.” He says the one big takeaway for viewers will be the passion and commitment shown by the young couple at the centre of Guerrilla, people “who are there for each other in every circumstance.”

He does acknowledge, however, that while the times they are a changin’, racism and protests march on, especially with Donald Trump in office as the 45th president of the United States.

“I’m going to speak with an urgency that I’ve been doing for 20 years,” Ridley says, “and as long as people provide me a platform, I will continue to do that.”

Staying mute is not an option.

“As Jas says, you can say something or do nothing. When people ask me what I did, I’m not going to say: ‘I sat on the fence.’ Certainly, as a storyteller, this is all I can do. I will continue to do it.”

Bill Brioux is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and contributor to the Canadian Press.