Showtime, in conjunction with Sky Atlantic in the U.K., is working overtime to promote their upcoming miniseries Guerrilla. According to the network’s official website, Guerrilla is a love story about “a politically active couple whose relationship and values are tested when they liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell in 1970s London.”
The six-part limited series is written and directed by Academy Award-winner John Ridley and stars Freida Pinto, an Indian woman, Babou Ceesay, a Black British man, and Idris Elba as Pinto’s ex- paramour. The trio plays a group of activists focused on ending police brutality, using armed resistance and the “power to the people” slogan to affect change. After looking at the official website and watching the official trailer, I noticed something troubling–I could not find any significant scenes with Black women.
As an aspiring historian of the Black Atlantic in the twentieth century, as well as a Black woman of Caribbean descent, I know Black women were a significant portion of the British Black Power movement. Although Ridley argues otherwise, there is a concrete erasure of Black British women from the center of Guerrilla and when they are present, Black women are represented in problematic ways. Black women, who were leaders in the British Black Power movement, should not be shoved from the center and into the margins of their history.
In addition to the issues about Black women’s erasure, Guerrilla is more fantasy than historical portrayal of the British Black Power movement. After a hectic U.K. premiere, the British public, as well as Black Twitter, voiced their disappointment with the lack of Black women figures in the series and the tepid response from the creator, cast and crew.
Black women did not have a supporting role. We're always in every struggle. Every defeat, every victory. DO NOT ERASE US! #Guerrilla
— marlene h gaynair, phd (@blkatlanticCDN) April 7, 2017
In Guerrilla, we have missed an opportunity to learn about the history of the Black Power movement in Great Britain, and the crucial roles Black women of Caribbean descent played in the movement.
A Brief History of the Black Power Movement in the U.K.
After World War II, a mass influx of Afro-Caribbean people from mainly Jamaica and Trinidad arrived in London, as British subjects and members of the Commonwealth. British colonies in the Caribbean suffered from major unemployment and poverty that was largely ignored by Parliament and the British government. Seizing the opportunity to travel to the Metropole, Caribbean migrants sought work in a war-torn economy. Other formerly colonized groups, particularly from Southeast Asia and West Africa, later joined Caribbean migrants in London.
Once there, Black migrants tackled a new climate and unwelcoming foreign culture. Notably, this is also a time when the British government changed their Immigration and Citizenship Acts in 1962, 1968 and 1971, severely limiting mass Black and Southeast Asian migration. Many immigrants who later came to England during the sixties and seventies were middle-class students on scholarships at U.K. universities. Like Neil Kenlock, Althea Lecointe and Darcus Howe mentioned in this article, future Black Power leaders faced growing resentment from a White British society, and worked together to change the system for all races. The Black Power generation in Britain were largely first and second generation British citizens who wanted better access to jobs, education reform, and especially an end to police brutality.
Working-class migrants in urban communities in London like Tottenham, Brixton, and Notting Hill, as well as across the U.K. in cities like Birmingham and Manchester, suffered persecution from the Metropolitan Police, Home Office and British Special Forces. Activist Paul Field and historian Robin Bunce found that the British government formed the Black Power Desk, a counter-intelligence agency similar to COINTELPRO in the U.S. The mission of the Black Power Desk was to antagonize and eliminate Black leadership and activism in the U.K. Margaret Thatcher’s government also increased police power, reinstituting the 1824 Vagrancy Act, stopping and searching “suspicious suspects” in predominately urban communities. These “sus laws” were similar to “stop-and-frisk” laws in urban America. Furthermore, as historian Tanisha Ford has argued, Afro- Caribbean migrants and their descendants were targeted the most by the Metropolitan Police in London, causing tensions and violence in their communities. Therefore, it is within this context that Black Britons rose up to fight against racism of state and society.
The Problem With Guerrilla
The fact that #Guerrilla had BLACK producers, writers, commissioners and directors AND STILL Black women are minor characters is scary AF!
— Chardine Taylor Stone (@ChardineTaylor) April 11, 2017
With all of this in mind, I question why the only two significant Black female roles in the series were relegated to one episode out of six as a local community spokesperson, and five episodes out of six as a single mother and sex worker informant. Where are the Olive Morrises of the movement? What happened to portrayals of Beverley Brown and Janet Davis, who founded Black Power organizations and joined the Black Panthers? Why not include the intellectual contributions of Black women scholars such as Jacqueline Nassy Brown, Tanisha Ford and Kennetta Perry, who study Black British activism during this period? Even recent articles in The Guardian highlight the contributions of only Black men and Indian British activists in the Black Power movement, while forgetting Black women leaders like Althea Jones Lecointe and Barbara Beese.
Granted, I have not seen this series just yet; it premieres on Showtime in America on Sunday, April 16th. However, I have read the deeply disconcerting comments made by Ridley, Guerilla’s writer, director and executive producer. An article written by Tom Grater at ScreenDaily featured the series’ U.K. premiere and Q&A in London where a Black British woman asked Ridley about the absence of Black women and the need for a leading Indian female character. Ridley responded, “To me, everything that you’re saying is exactly why that decision is so important. The fact that it’s difficult to accept someone, even though they are of color, of being with us…” He later added that, “If there are things that are difficult to understand, accept, rationalize, despite the fact that if you understand the struggles of that time period… those elements are not made up, those are real…” It fully appears as though Ridley did not understand or did not want to answer the question (see below).
— Content is Queen (@ContentisQn) April 7, 2017
Responding to another member of the audience, Ridley admitted to making the leads a mixed-race couple because he is married to an Asian woman. He added, “[T]he things that are being said here, and how we are often received, is very equivalent to what’s going on right now [in the wider world]. My wife is a fighter, my wife is an activist, and yet because our races are different there are a lot of things we have to still put up with.” Again, Ridley’s interracial marriage should not compare to Black and Southeast Asian activism in 1970s London. It reveals a lack of understanding about diverse Asian identities across geopolitical contexts, and it’s historically inaccurate.
— SB.TV (@SBTVonline) April 5, 2017
Sadly, there appears to be a casual denial of needing Black female leadership in this series. Ridley and Pinto’s comments relating to “political blackness,” entirely misses the point. Indeed, “political Blackness” as a broad spectrum includes many marginalized groups, however as historian Tanisha Ford says in Liberated Threads, there is a specific Blackness only experienced by people of the African diaspora. Black Power emerging from the United States spoke directly to that experience.
My critique is not about Southeast Asian inclusion, but rather the elimination of significant roles for Black women revolutionary leaders, which neglects the historical truth of their contributions. “Jas Mitra” played by Pinto engages in armed resistance and inspires others to fight, while “Kenya,” played by Wunmi Mosaku, is a traitor engaged in a sexual relationship with a racist chief inspector from Rhodesia. Let’s be clear, my issue is not with the actors themselves, but with the creative decisions that have unnecessarily diminished historical fact.
At the Q&A session, Black British photographer Neil Kenlock responded to another Black woman’s concerns, stating that he was the only one in the audience present during the movement, and that he remembered “an Asian woman,” too. Yet, in an earlier article promoting Kenlock’s photography of the movement, there are countless images of Black women at the forefront of British Black Power protests.
If this series is based on Bunce and Field’s recent study on Darcus Howe and British Black Power, which follows the trial of nine Afro-Caribbean men and women charged with inciting a riot and resisting police brutality, then Guerrilla deliberately eliminated the possibility of portraying women like Barbara Beese and Althea Jones Lecointe. Assigning the actual activism of these Black women to Pinto’s character and others in the name of “inclusivity” causes irrevocable harm to the memories of Black women’s contributions.
Thank goodness for Twitter, especially Black Twitter. Since the initial press release and casting of Guerrilla last year, users highlighted the lack of Black women in the trailer and IMDb cast listing. The Twitterverse continues to point out the problems in the response of the cast and crew, who refuse to engage in the comments about Black women’s erasure. Many of these voices come directly from Black women, including myself. Instead of respectful acknowledgement of Black women activists, we have the literal erasure of Angela Davis, with Freida Pinto’s face superimposed over Davis’ for marketing purposes.
— Szechuan sauce. (@shanalala_) April 8, 2017
This Guerrilla poster, initially retweeted by Ceesay, is an irresponsible and hurtful rewriting of the past, especially when Black women like Davis fought to be seen, respected, and heard. When Ceesay asked a Black woman in the audience during the U.K. premiere how she knew about the movement, he also revealed a lack of respect for the historical subjects and his audience. To answer that question, I say that I am aware of this history as a future historian, and like many Black women, we know and understand this history because “our parents were there.”
M. Hyacinth Gaynair is Rutgers University fellow and a lover of Black Atlantic History. Follow her on Twitter @blkatlanticCDN