John Ridley really should've seen this coming; maybe he wasn't paying attention; maybe he was, but didn't care; or he believed that it wouldn't be a problem; or he figured that he'd be able to handle any push-back. Whatever the reason, he now has to face the music, as the April 16th premiere of his Showtime/Sky Atlantic event TV series "Guerrilla" draws near, and the award-winning writer/producer/director embarks on a press tour, hoping to sell his vision to a significant audience - most especially a black audience, given the series' subject matter.
He should've heard the concerns expressed by many black people (black women especially, on both sides of the Atlantic) when the starring cast for "Guerrilla" was revealed last year, with a black male lead and an Indian female lead.
For a love story set against the backdrop of one of the most politically explosive times in UK history, following the trials of black revolutionaries within the British Black Power Movement of the 1970s, it was fully expected that the leads would both be black. That they both wouldn't be, likely wasn't even a thought in the minds of many, especially given the names behind the series, both black men, John Ridley pairing up with Idris Elba who both co-starred and executive produced via his Green Door Pictures production shingle.
So when Frieda Pinto was cast as the female lead, and Babou Ceesay the male lead, without mention of any black actresses in any prominent/starring roles as part of this purported love story set within the Black Power Movement in the UK, the news was met with an immediate opposition movement entirely its own.
The question, "Where are the black women?", or some variation of it, demanded to be answered, with some threatening to boycott the series before a single frame had even been shot. This was last summer (2016). Again, John Ridley should've fully expected what he experienced last night after the series premiered in the UK, and he should expect that it will continue, maybe with even more fervor, when his US marketing efforts kick off likely over the next few days. He'll have to answer the previously-posed question: "Where are the black women?"
So what happened last night, April 6?
In brief, after a premiere screening of "Guerrilla" in London (the series will also air on Sky Atlantic in the UK), Ridley was asked repeatedly to defend his decision to have the series' leading female character be an Indian woman instead of a black British woman.
Our friends at Screen Daily were present for the entire event, and, courtesy of their report, here's a summary of how it all went down. I should note that we here at S&A have yet to actually see any episodes of the series, so I can't offer any informed commentary on it, and I'm going solely based on what Screen Daily reports.
One questioner addressed Ridley directly with her concerns: “My parents were a part of that movement [black power]. I want to understand why you decided [to make] an Asian woman the main protagonist.”
The audience member noted that the only prominent black female character in episode one is an informer against the movement for a racist, white police officer.
“I understand the contribution of Asians to this, but having an Asian protagonist making all the big decisions... does that get explained in subsequent episodes? We can’t ignore that,” she continued.
Ridley attempted to engage with the question: “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 colour, of being with us...”
“I don’t find it difficult to accept, I’m just trying to understand,” interrupted the questioner.
Ridley responded: “If everybody understood racism, oppression... there would be no reason to be doing this show. We would be doing Dancing With The Stars,” he joked.
“If there are things that are difficult to understand, accept, rationalise, despite the fact that if you understand the struggles of that time period... those elements are not made up, those are real,” Ridley continued.
“If there are any aspects of my show that are difficult to understand or accept, I feel I have done my job,” he added, drawing applause from the audience, “It is an incredibly valid question, but please accept that my answer is equally as valid.”
Needless to say, his answer wasn't accepted as valid, and others jumped in and pressed Ridley further.
"I’m not sure you quite answered the question - why are there no black women at the forefront of the struggle? That doesn’t necessarily accurately reflect what happened in the 70s in the UK,” [another audience member asked].
Babou Ceesay, who plays one of the male leads in the show alongside Idris Elba, was taken aback by the suggestion: “Wow, really? You know this because you read about it?”
“No, we know this because our parents were a part of it,” responded the second questioner.
With audience members now having vocal disagreements amongst themselves - with one loudly describing it as “the erasure of black women” - Ridley launched an impassioned defense of his project: “I said previously, I think the characters in this story are complicated across the board, so the concept that any one person is somehow better, or more elevated, or more appropriate than any other individual, I’m sorry, I don’t accept that.
“I don’t want to make this overly personal, but part of why I chose to have a mixed race couple at the centre of this is that I’m in a mixed race relationship. The 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 our different there are a lot of things we have to still put up with.” he said, visibly holding back tears.
“This is one of the proudest moments of my entire life. This cast, this crew, the people involved in this show are the most reflective cast and crew that you will find anywhere. I’m sorry I cannot entertain a dialogue about whether the lead character in this show should be black or Asian – the lead character in this show should be a strong woman of colour,” he concluded.
The heated Q&A certainly didn't end there, but you get the gist of it.
I should note that cast members Idris Elba (also executive producer), Freida Pinto, Babou Ceesay and Rory Kinnear were in attendance; per the above report, Ceesay chimed in once, but it doesn't appear that Elba or Pinto said anything.
[caption id="attachment_293644" align="aligncenter" width="2500"] Zawe Ashton in "Guerrilla"[/caption]
With regards to the mention of the only prominent black female character in episode one being an informer against the movement, the actress who likely plays the role is Zawe Ashton (photo from the series above), given that she's the only black actress we've seen in any of the press materials for the series, thus far. Although Wunmi Mosaku (another black British actress) is also a member of the cast, so it could very well be her role as well.
The series is 6-parts long, and only the first episode was screened per the above report; whether there's more than meets the eye here, that will be eventually unveiled in successive episodes, answering the question about the absence of black women in prominent roles in the series, Ridley gave no clues in his responses during last night's Q&A session. But I suggest he come up with firmer answers before he begins his USA press tour, because the series may actually suffer by under-performing in terms of ratings, since some on this side of the pond (based on reactions from readers of this blog, as well as on social media) have pledged to avoid the series entirely.
When we finally get a look at the series, there'll certainly be more to discuss.
UPDATE: Video of the above Q&A has surfaced online that captures some of what is outlined in the Screen Daily report. Watch all 3 videos below which come courtesy of the @MelaninMille Twitter account:
— Melanin Millennials (@MelaninMille) April 7, 2017
— Melanin Millennials (@MelaninMille) April 7, 2017
— Melanin Millennials (@MelaninMille) April 6, 2017
"Guerrilla" will premiere on Showtime (USA) on Sunday, April 16 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
Babou Ceesay and Freida Pinto star in the drama that hails from creator John Ridley ("American Crime," "12 Years a Slave"), with Idris Elba's Green Door Pictures executive producing.
The series also stars names of other black British actors you'll be familiar with: Zawe Ashton, Nicholas Pinnock, Wunmi Mosaku, and Nathaniel Martello-White, as well as African American actor Brandon Scott, plus Rory Kinnear, Daniel Mays, and Denise Gough round out the key cast.
Academy Award winner John Ridley wrote the majority of the series with British writer Misan Sagay writing episode five; Ridley also directs half of the series together with British director Sam Miller.
Produced by Endemol Shine International, commissioned for Sky by Head of Drama Anne Mensah and Director of Sky Atlantic Zai Bennett, the series is a co-production between Fifty Fathoms and ABC Signature. Alongside John Ridley through his company International Famous Players Radio Picture Corporation, the executive producers are Idris Elba for Green Door Pictures, Patrick Spence and Katie Swinden for Fifty Fathoms (Fortitude, Marvellous), Tracy Underwood for ABC Signature, and Michael McDonald for Stearns Castle.
Showtime has released a behind the scenes featurette in which the cast and creators talk about the series' significance. Underneath it, you'll find a teaser (titled "Three Lives, One Destiny") followed by a couple of clips: