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Showtime’s ‘Guerrilla’ Explores Seventies Black Radicalism Through a Universal Lens
April 15, 2017  | By David Hinckley

Showtime’s new limited series Guerrilla tells an important story imperfectly.

Important in this case counts far more than perfect. Guerrilla, which premieres Sunday in the choice 9 p.m. ET Homeland spot, is a solid, disturbing tale about the powder keg of racial injustice.

Marcus Hill (Babou Ceesay, top) is a teacher living in London in 1971. At one time a regular teacher, he has lately been teaching prison inmates, believing that if they can become focused and educated, they could become a powerful force for change in society.

That makes him an idealist, more or less, poking around the fringes of the emerging black radicalism of the early ‘70s.

His girlfriend Jas Mitra (Freida Pinto, top and left) is a nurse, and now Marcus would like to get a regular teaching job again, one that perhaps pays a living wage.

Each time he applies he is scorned and demeaned, his legitimate ambition dismissed as a joke. He is offered work as a porter.

Then one of his friends, a nonviolent activist, is set up by a racist police official, Mike Pence (Rory Kinnear). Marcus doesn’t even know the full depth of Pence’s duplicity, which involves paid provocateur informants, but when Jas pushes Marcus to “do something,” he crosses the line into radical activism.

There’s no going back after this to a regular old teaching job, not that he was having any luck getting one.

He, Jas and high-profile militant activist Dhari Bishop (Nathaniel Martello-White) slip into the wind, trying to make an impact and a difference as they go.

While Pinto does a terrific job playing Jas, Guerrilla sometimes moves a little too rapidly in shifting Jas and Marcus from restless citizens to revolutionaries.

What’s more important to director John Ridley, it seems clear, is examining the whole radical culture of the era. Doing it through a British lens in this joint U.S./U.K. production gives it a freshness and universality sometimes missing when American shows suggest racial divides are an American issue.

They are, of course. They’re also a world issue, and Ridley persuasively links what was happening in Britain with what was happening in the United States: a small but growing radical movement; internal arguments over tactics; swaggering white supremacists embodied here in Britain’s National Front; a police response seemingly concerned only with “the troublemakers,” not the reason the trouble began in the first place.

Guerrilla doesn’t paint Marcus, Jas or Dhari as angels. Nor does it make an angel of Kent (Idris Elba, right), a professor torn between his nonviolent instincts and his loyalty to Jas.

Elba, who is also an executive producer, could have had Kent become a clear moral center, issuing wise pronouncements. Instead, while he’s cool and intelligent and serves as a voice of moderation, he often seems as torn and uncertain as the others.

A central premise of Guerrilla seems to be that sometimes our courses of action stem from carefully considered decisions while at other times a single impulsive moment, or external factors like love, can hurl us on a path from which there is no retreat.

Whatever the multiple motivations for the characters here, Guerrilla leaves little doubt about the outrageous provocation for a militant response. Pence’s police force at times devolves into little more than storm troopers.

There are times during the six episodes of Guerrilla when the viewer will wish some characters on both sides were more fully developed, or that all the confrontations here were not telescoped into one story.

But the universality of injustice, and the insidious ways it perpetuates itself, ultimately stand as the message that endures after the fire has burned.

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