At first blush, Showtime’s debut event series “Guerrilla” resembles a standalone potboiler, reminiscent of well-drawn spy stories like the many excellent adaptations of John Le Carré novels. It has that gloss of period romance — whether that is nightclubs filled with cigarette smoke, where shadowy figures come to deal and dance; or the quaint tools of pre-Internet revolution — typewriters, communiqués, the odd persistence of the rotary phone. Stories like this always play a little with that inherent dramatic irony of the period piece — where the audience knows, in broad sketches, what the world will become, but the characters still don’t.
Except “Guerrilla” doesn’t revolve around a mystery, where a secret is buried somewhere and must be found. It is not a story about discovering, but rather about becoming; the mystery, if there is one, is how it happens that militants, once so much like everyone else, come to the point where they choose infamy and violence.
“Guerrilla” begins with Marcus (Babou Ceesay) and Jas (Freida Pinto), a quiet bohemian couple peddling leftist literature and teaching convicts. But when a friend is killed in a police action — on top of another friend imprisoned, constant harassment by the police, and chronic unemployment — the two hit a wall. Fed up, they strike out on their own “action” — using broken glass and a pistol to break out a militant activist from prison. But Dhari (Nathaniel Martello-White), once sprung, has to be hidden — and the team, now a gang of sorts, wants for money, a mission statement, and notoriety. It’s a short slide from there to broadcasting a manifesto on shortwave radio.
“Guerrilla” is a surprisingly wrenching story about good intentions going awry. The event series sketches out how radicalism happens by offering up a landscape where it seems not just sympathetic but inevitable, in a politically charged climate in the midst of the Cold War. In 1971 London, police from Rhodesia and South Africa were encouraged to bring their regressive views on race relations to a diversifying inner city reading Mao and Ho Chi Minh. In London, the native-born British blacks commingle with displaced Irish and with immigrants from the Asian subcontinent. In a story of racist policing not unfamiliar to American audiences, the cops do what they want to suppress problematic identity groups. When push comes to shove, the story’s protagonists turn from passing around literature and attending protests to wearing masks and wielding machine guns.
It’s quite a common story for 1971 — an era which saw the proliferation of armed splinter groups around the world. During a lull in the storytelling, “Guerrilla’s” protagonists take refuge with a ragtag band of militants that includes a Quebecois separatist and German socialists sympathetic to the Stasi. There is talk of decamping to Lebanon — or Algeria, or Vietnam — to become a better “soldier.” But seeing it up close is chilling. “Guerrilla” has a strong sense of place, and creates a portrait of gray London that emphasizes the back alleys and side streets, the “Negro” coffee shops and dingy organizers’ apartments. Combined with the familiar and now-beloved aesthetics of the era, early ‘70s London is recognizable and happening in a way that feels very contemporary and is also deeply disturbing. Despite the distance of decades, “Guerrilla” feels like a memento mori for contemporary political engagement.
From workhorse John Ridley — who has chronicled race relations in “12 Years a Slave,” three seasons of “American Crime,” and an upcoming documentary on the 1992 racial unrest in Los Angeles — an eye on the past seems necessarily to be a lesson for the present. And for an American audience (“Guerrilla,” a co-production with Sky Atlantic, will air in the UK simultaneously) the transposed questions of police brutality, multiculturalism, and even intersectionality take on new meaning when they are unmoored of our current context. The issues are the same; it’s just the details that are different (and even then, not that different). It’s significant that the first scene of “Guerrilla” is Marcus looking for work; he’s turned away from the unemployment office several times over the course of the premiere episode, as faceless white men ignore his qualifications, assume he is a “troublemaker,” and encourage him to take up manual labor. “Guerrilla” does not allow its own characters off the hook, but as Ridley is wont to do, the series examines the institutions that these individuals are enmeshed in, too.
Although the show’s primary tension is about black people in a white, British supremacy, at the story’s center is not Marcus, Dhari, or even Idris Elba’s Kent, but Freida Pinto’s inscrutable, passionate Jas — an Indian immigrant with a bold surety in her cause that makes her frighteningly comfortable with the trappings of terrorism. “Guerrilla” observes how quickly Jas becomes at ease with wielding guns and bullying opponents — a facility for the language of violence, quite a heel-turn for a former nurse and teacher. “Guerilla” suggests, very subtly, that perhaps because the women of the movement are even more vulnerable than the men, they are correspondingly more fierce; one of the first instances of police overreach in “Guerrilla” is a British police officer lasciviously groping an Irish woman’s breasts and torso during a “routine” stop.
Whatever the reasoning, Pinto is exceptional in the role. The actress carries a certain gravitas into her role as Jas Mitra, and as a result she’s both hard to read but strangely familiar by the time the real fireworks start. Pinto proves to have enough heft as an actress that she can balance how zealously she is watched, and how symbolically she is interpreted, into a chin-upraised defiance that channels both Angela Davis and Patty Hearst — a chic icon that is either leading or childishly swept up in something vast and seething. Of the cadre of characters that form the main cast — men and women, sympathetic and unsympathetic — nearly all are sketched out in terms of how they overlap with, oppose, or are attracted to her. Even the investigators tracking the case and the media reporting on their activities are primarily taken with her — with the image of her face, in particular, as it is distributed to news organizations and law enforcement. Briefly, she is even taken in by her own image; at the end of the first episode, looking over at Marcus, she summarizes the blood and fear of the last 12 hours with just one line: “We’re so f–king cool.”
Her narrative doppelganger is directly opposite her, in Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, is Rory Kinnear’s lawman Pence — a detective at the department’s Black Power Desk, a real-life counter-intelligence unit from the era. Kinnear has over and over again proven to be an exceptionally restrained performer, and as Pence, he delivers a performance of casual racism that is so well-rendered it’s stomach-turning. Ridley’s fascination with perspectives that facilely deny his own humanity is some of his most brilliant uncovering, and Pence is no exception — a kind of upstanding citizen who can and will defend his oppressive policing of black people by arguing that it is in “their” nature to keep taking from the white man. Kinnear’s willingness to embrace the ugliness is matched by Ridley’s desire to excavate these viewpoints.
“Guerrilla” excels because of its interest in how individuals digest revolution — its tools cut against the assumptions made on every side of the fight that pits “us” vs. “them.” The series assembles a lot of different approaches in its one story, with a touch of the didactic tone of “American Crime.” But “Guerrilla’s” remove makes its concerns more accessible. For domestic audiences, it’s a timely reminder that multiculturalism — and the fear of it — is not new or uniquely American, but the long-simmering narrative of the world. This one, at least, has a violent ending.