AGE OF REVOLUTION
Guerrilla takes us back to a volatile Britain of radical violence and police brutality
Writer and director John Ridley was until recently best known for his 2013 Academy Awardwinning Years a Slave screenplay; now he is a big player in this new era of innovative television storytelling. His Emmy-winning anthology drama American Crime, a clever, densely worked sociological tweak on the classic cop procedural, proved complex narratives could still find a home on network TV in the US (in this case ABC) and not only on cable or the proliferating streaming services.
His latest, Guerrilla, is a six-part coproduction between cable network Showtime in the US and Britain’s Sky Atlantic. It is primarily written and directed by Ridley, and is so good, so driven, so commanding and so stylistically engaging, that it might also hoover up awards. It is also wonderfully emblematic of Ridley’s commitment to “populating the culture with driven and complicated people of colour”.
Set against the backdrop of the British Immigration Act of 1971, in which citizens of the Commonwealth lost their automatic right to remain in Britain unless they had lived and worked there for five years, Guerrilla is a series that plays out across the racial and class divides of that troubled time. It was a period when, largely forgotten now, the country was engaged in warfare with many of its own people, those who militantly dared to challenge systemic racism. Immigration was a violent battlefield.
As Ridley so pungently reveals in this fictionalised (though largely based on fact) series, it was a time when reaching out to respect and idealise cultural revolutionaries was part of a more diffuse quest for alternatives to a social system seen as unjust, oppressive and inegalitarian. He presents us with the harrowing tale, and resonant and timely it is too, of a young, idealistic couple who, as he says, “get to the point where they think they can only affect change through the barrel of a gun”.
The series is prefaced by a quote from Ho Chi Minh, one of the fashionable cultural heroes of the late 1960s and early 70s. Like Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Mao, he was eternally identified with guerilla warfare and political violence: “People who come out of prison can build up a country. Misfortune is a test of people’s fidelity. Those who protest injustice are people of true merit. When the prison gates are opened the real dragon will fly out.”
Marcus Hill, a black, bookish British citizen with Nigerian parents, and Jas Mitra, Indian by birth and the tenacious daughter of immigrants, played with intense conviction by Babou Ceesay and Freida Pinto respectively, are involved with the growing anti-establishment movement in their community, largely as a response to the violence and corruption of the London police. But also, as children of the colonies that built the empire, they daily confront the question of identity: are they citizens or merely visitors? Countrymen or interlopers?
As Marcus futilely looks for employment as an English teacher — he already teaches literature to incarcerated black men as part of the prison reform movement — and Jas works at the Hammersmith Hospital, they are dramatically radicalised by the actions of the Metropolitan Police’s sinister Black Power Desk. Known as the “hard heart” of Special Branch, headed by the fervent anti-activist officer Nicholas Pence (Rory Kinnear), the Desk recruits heavily trained cops from South Africa and Rhodesia to weed out black radical troublemakers. (The Desk was actually established in 1967 by order of Roy Jenkins, then home secretary, and kept black activists under surveillance for many years.)
When their friend Julian Clarke (Nicholas Pinnock) is brutally murdered in broad daylight by the Desk during a demonstration against right-wing extremists, the National Front, they plan, adamantly led by the fiery Jas, to liberate a charismatic political prisoner called Dhari Bishop (Nathaniel Martello-White), who has been incarcerated in Wormwood Scrubs for stabbing a man while robbing a bottle shop.
She’s determined the fight must be fought by trained militants, like the German BaaderMeinhof gang, committing terrorist acts in the name of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist revolutionary ideals, or the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, the lawless American evangelists who had formed a church in devotion to the transformative power of LSD. “We need a soldier who can take the fight to them,” she tells Marcus. “When Dhari talks people will listen; when he points his finger at the belly of the beast, we will know exactly where to cut it.”
The series is intense and visceral, its violence often quite confronting — though blackouts are used at the most extreme moments. Ridley’s urgent storytelling style dramatises the period’s susceptibility to the attractions of revolutionary violence, the use of violent methods being viewed as proof of authentic political commitment and personal courage.
As in American Crime, a series that is also challenging to watch at times, scenes run unnervingly long, the camera remaining focused on single characters in conversation, reverse angles largely absent. Much of Guerrilla is shot in extreme close-up, and Ridley holds on his characters’ faces for long moments when they are listening, refusing the conventional option of cutting to the speaker. The style has been called “bracing” in stripping away extraneous details to keep the personal and the political in balance. Bracing, indeed. Far removed from the violent world of wouldbe revolutionaries and slippery police corruption is the dapper, thoughtful presence of film critic David Stratton, who this week concludes his enlightening biographical study, David Stratton’s Stories of Australian Cinema. The series is written and directed by the highly accomplished Sally Aitken ( Getting Frank Gehry) and produced by fine filmmakers Joanne McGowan — who most recently gave us Between a Frock and a Hard Place, the documentary that looked well beyond the history of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to the society from which it grew — and Jennifer Peedom, one of our great documentarians, who was responsible for the award-winning Sherpa, the third highest grossing Australian documentary in cinema history.
And their series, as one might expect, is simply splendid, a three-hour exploration of our film industry in all its often wretched, knockabout glory that Aitken describes “simply as a love letter to Australian cinema”.
Stratton (a longstanding writer for Review) is the perfect companion, a critic who has always appealed to our need for illumination, and while over the 28 years of his TV appearances he has appeared sometimes hopelessly and charmingly genteel alongside the mercurial Margaret Pomeranz, here he presents a rather different persona. As Aitken says: “In reality the man behind the critic, behind the formal television persona, has a rather devilish sense of fun as well as an emotional vulnerability never seen before.”
Ever alert to nuance, Stratton steps out of the studio and goes on the road, visiting such film locations as the Broken Hill of outback horror film Wake in Fright, which echoed through David’s own experience as an uninitiated Australian, the ordinary Melbourne house in which The Castle was filmed, and the desert where Walkabout and Rabbit-Proof Fence’s tragedies and triumphs played out.
At times it is a touchingly personal experience for the critic, who migrated to Australia in 1963, when the industry consisted of a couple of decaying laboratories, two or three small film companies making commercials for something still called “the idiot box”, and half a dozen stalwarts grinding out a living making sponsored documentaries. Local production comprised ads for Mortein fly spray, Kia-Ora soups and Du Maurier cigarettes.
It was, as Phillip Adams was fond of pointing out, as stuffed as Phar Lap. It would soon change, as Stratton so persuasively reveals, interviewing many of the veterans and pioneers and an A-list cast of directors, writers and actors including Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Geoffrey Rush, Rachel Griffiths, Eric Bana and Jacki Weaver. “A nation found its identity through cinema, and so did I,” he says.
He once told me a story of having dinner in London in 1982 with The Guardian’s film critic Derek Malcolm and director Bernardo Bertolucci, “when he was making good films”. Malcolm was asked why he had never directed films himself, unlike other critics such as Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol. Bertolucci interrupted. “Don’t take away our critics,’’ he implored. “We filmmakers need them as a bridge. The critic is the link between us and the audience.” In a time when professional critics and arts writers are disappearing, we should be grateful for being able to share time with Mr Stratton who, as always, addresses us with clarity, civility and common sense. BBC First, Sunday, 9.30pm. ABC, Tuesday, 8.30pm.
Dynamic pairings: Freida Pinto and Babou Ceesay in Guerrilla, top; David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz, left