John Ridley is on a roll. A seasoned writer whose credits stretch back to the 1990s, his 2013 Oscar winning screenplay for “12 Years a Slave” vaulted him into the stratosphere of show biz. Presently, he is the driving force behind three high profile productions on the small screen: “American Crime” has been a staple of the ABC TV lineup for the past two years; “Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992,” a documentary about the events leading up to that city’s upheaval, is slated to appear on ABC on April 28; and this Sunday, April 16, a six part mini-series, “Guerrilla,” will be televised on Showrime.
“Guerrilla” is a dramatization of the little known demonstrations for racial equality among Black immigrations in 1970s England. Ridley shares writing duties with Misan Sagay (“Belle”), with a cast headed up by Idris Alba (“The Wire,” “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”), Freida Pinto (“Slumdog Millionaire”), and a relative newcomer, Gambian-British actor Babou Ceesay.
The series uses the romance between two free spirited immigrants (Pinto and Ceesay), as the jumping off point to show the inevitable radicalization of a liberal couple, pushed into militancy by the alternating badgering, indifference, and persecution by those in authority. Staging a prison break to free a notorious militant (Nathaniel Martello-White from “Red Tails”) sends the two lovers past the point of no return, forced into uneasy alliances with elements of the Irish Republican Army and Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang. Martello-White infuses their idealistic aims for social justice with gritty jail-house thuggery (in one memorable scene, before committing a crime Pinto dons a floppy hat similar to the one worn by Patty Hearst during her 1974 videotaped bank robbery).
Opposing this rag tag band is a ruthless component of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, the unit tasked with addressing internal threats to security. In this case, a separate detachment called the “Black Power Desk” was actually set up specifically to subvert the political activities of African-Caribbeans, Indians, and other dissenters of foreign extraction. Reportedly, the cadre recruited for this secretive band came from the apartheid/segregationist regimes of Rhodesia and South Africa.
“Guerrilla” works best depicting the dynamic between the radicals and the police tasked with apprehending them. Rory Kinnear (the Frankenstein monster in Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful”) portrays a Rhodesian expatriate detective whose racist background collides with his dysfunctional family life, and his involvement with a covert informant. His partner, Daniel Mays, empathizes with his quarry due to his own Irish heritage of being oppressed by the British ruling class; this makes him all the more determined to use them to improve his own status in the racist British pecking order.
“Don’t you ever get tired of being the low one on the pole?,” he reasons with a fellow Irish woman and potential stool pigeon. Another scene has him impassively taking part in a heinous interrogation/torture session to gain information on those below him to get ahead.
Perhaps the most prominent name among the performers, Idris Alba, is given a more subdued role as a political moderate (with an intimate history with Pinto’s character), whose attempts to serve as a mediator result in allegations of being a sellout.
In true Hollywood fashion, controversy has entered into the equation as “Guerrilla’s” airing approaches. Ridley has received criticism from Afro-centric feminists for featuring the Mumbai, India, born Pinto as a lead character instead of an African or Caribbean woman of color. Historical accuracy in this mini-series (the tactics used in Britain were dramatically low-key as opposed to those displayed in the United States) is elusive, because documentation of this historical episode is scarce compared to the equivalent American activities of the same time frame. One pivotal figure from this era, Trinidadian activist and writer Darcus Howe, served as a consultant and made a cameo appearance before his death on April 1 from prostrate cancer.
“Guerrilla” premieres Sunday April 16 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.