This article contains information that could be considered too revealing according to our spoiler policy. Proceed with caution. You can't unsee it!Reason The show doesn't debut until a couple of days after publication time; we got a screener.
Will Guerrilla Convince You To Join The Revolution?
Or is Showtime's new historical drama about leftist revolutionaries in 1970s England less appealing than a soggy order of fish and chips?
What Is This Thing?
Guerrilla tells the story of a mixed race couple who become revolutionaries in 1970s England. Marcus (Babou Cessay) and his girlfriend Jas (Freida Pinto) are committed civil rights activists who grow increasing frustrated when their peaceful attempts at improving the nation's race relations lead nowhere. Concerned over a harsh new immigration bill making its way through parliament, the growing popularity of the racist National Front Party, and a violent, corrupt police force, they hatch a plan that goes awry and results in them embarking on a new life as "soldiers" for the cause.
When Is It On?
Sundays at 9 PM on Showtime, starting April 16.
Why Was It Made Now?
Although based on real events that occurred in Britain in the 1970s, and the era's black liberation movement more broadly, the story has a great deal of relevance to viewers on both sides of Atlantic today. Elements of the series that have more than a passing similarity to present day events include corrupt white police officers who have no problem killing innocent black men, a growing movement of racist whites possessing irrational fears about immigrants, and conservative politicians looking to appease these racists. About the only thing we lack currently from the series is a group of small, radical organizations committed to violence as a means of achieving their goals. And perhaps that's the point of the series -- if we can develop an understanding of how race relations were mishandled in the past, we might prevent the bombs and bullets from appearing again.
What's Its Pedigree?
There are a few big names here. John Ridley (American Crime, 12 Years A Slave) created the series, and serves as the main writer and director. Idris Elba (The Wire, Luther) executive produces and plays Kent, Jas's former lover and a voice of sanity and moderation.
As someone who teaches the history of political activism in the 1960s and 1970s, I am constantly having to confront the fact that pretty much the only thing people remember about one of the most intense periods of mass political activity in modern world history is that a ridiculously small number of activists turn to organized, revolutionary violence. We're talking about a few hundred (at most) out of hundreds of thousands of people who demonstrated against racism, sexism, war, and other forms of oppression. Unfortunately for those who committed themselves to peaceful resistance and organizing, mimeographing leaflets for an antiwar rally is just not sexy enough for TV. Beautiful women shooting guns?
That's another story, isn't it? As a result, we have been subject to a disproportionate amount of popular books, TV shows, and films about the Weather Underground, The Red Army Faction/Baader Meinhof Group (which both get name-checked in the first episode), The Symbionese Liberation Army (Patty Hearst's kidnappers), and various other tiny, ineffectual groups that were long on rhetoric, gunplay and group sex, but failed to enact social change in any meaningful way.
On the surface, Guerrilla seems headed in the same direction. Through the first episode we hear Marcus and Jas engage in the same "Violence is wrong! But we have to take ACTION!" common to most of these narratives. And for those who like to see guns as little more than penis substitutes, we have the requisite scene in which Jas finds her courage and inner strength -- becoming a real bad-ass woman -- after she holds one in her hand. A gun, not the other thing.
Speaking of the female lead, John Ridley recently caught a little heat for casting an Asian actress in a show about black liberation. There is some justification for this criticism. Women played key roles in numerous black liberation groups -- Angela Davis was certainly not the only black female radical of the era. Writing black women out of the history of their own movement is a questionable artistic choice at best.
The show stands up well despite these criticisms. The first episode does a nice job setting up the rest of the season, although I hope there will be some further exploration of how the two main characters decided to travel down such a dangerous path. Ridley explores the complicated nature of race relations in 1970s England in enough detail to keep the viewer from getting confused about the story's historical context, but not in a way that distracts from the primary action -- although a little background reading on actual events like the 1977 Battle of Lewisham (which seems to be the inspiration for a pivotal scene in the first episode of Guerrilla) would certainly enhance the viewing experience.
Veteran British actor Rory Kinnear, playing Chief Inspector Pence, has so far done little besides look menacing, but he does it very well and, without giving anything away, his story looks promising. The big question driving the next five episodes, though, centers on the fate of our young revolutionary lovers. Given the actual history of these movements, things will likely not end well. Will they go out in a fiery blaze like the Symbionese Liberation Army? Do they find a way out of the hopeless predicament they've landed in? Or do we get a more ambiguous cliffhanger that sets us up for more gun-toting hijinks in the second season?
Is Guerrillas worth rushing out and getting a subscription to Showtime? Not really -- at least not yet. But the series starts strong and has a good deal of potential, so if you already have SHO in your cable line-up I definitely recommend setting the DVR to record.