Warning: This article contains spoilers about the first two episodes of Guerrilla. Read at your own risk.
Earlier this week an image surfaced of a young British woman staring down a far-right protester, who was shouting racist, anti-immigration, and anti-Muslim abuse at an English Defense League demonstration in Birmingham, England. I thought of that image as I sat down to watch the first two episodes of the new Showtime drama Guerrilla, which features a similar protest scene — set in 1971. Look at how far we've come, eh?
When I first heard about the six-episode British miniseries, which boasts Idris Elba as an executive producer and Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley as writer and director, it sounded like something in the vein of FX hit The Americans: Attractive couple joins forces to undermine the system and be general badasses. That series, now in its fifth season, has been praised for being oddly prescient given its focus on Russian-American relations and Cold War spies; half the headlines coming out of Washington read like discarded scripts.
But, in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests, Kendall Jenner's tone-deaf Pepsi commercial, and immigration bans, Guerrilla has the edge when it comes to relevance. Babou Ceesay and Slumdog Millionaire's Freida Pinto play Marcus and Jas, a couple living in London, the year Parliament approved its highly discriminatory Immigration Act of 1971. He's a Black Briton who can't get the English teaching job he's more than qualified for because interviewers see him as a "troublemaker"; she's an India-born nurse whose father is a political prisoner. They like jazz, but it's politics that really knits them together as a couple.
"Marcus wants to do things," she explains to her suave but superficial-seeming ex-boyfriend Kent (played by a sideburns-sporting Elba). "I have to be with someone who wants to do things."
She's not talking about playing mixed doubles or booking trips to Tenerife. Jas and Marcus spend their time attending demonstrations and visiting Dhari (Nathaniel Martello-White), a political prisoner who's written a controversial manifesto railing against the U.K.'s poor treatment of its Black "children of the Commonwealth."
Things come to a head when a friend — a Black man who has already been attacked by the police and watched them sexually molest his white Irish girlfriend on a recent night out — is brutally beaten to death by officers during a demonstration against far-right, anti-immigration protesters (sound familiar?). Suddenly, showing up for protests isn't enough; Jas wants to do things, and she convinces Marcus to take part. They're already treated like criminals; why not make the leap?
Unlike Philip and Elizabeth in The Americans, whose success hinges on their ability to ape the perfect white American family, Jas and Marcus are without privilege or resources. And so it's with a hastily purchased gun and the most horrifying tampon of all time that they're able to free Dhari from prison.
There are no wigs, cowboy hats, or handlers. There's no money. Jas and Marcus are now fully realized radicals who are on the lam with little to lose. Rory Kinnear's evil South African cop Pence writes them off as a "couple of lovebirds on their misadventures," but they're committed to the cause.
What follows isn't merely about taking action and breaking the law; it's a discussion on how best to protest. Jas and Marcus need a sponsor to fund their missions, but connecting with one is at odds with their cause. Their former peers are distancing themselves from the couple's radicalism and propping up Kent as the friendly face of Black activism. It'll be interesting to see which approach wins out as the story unfolds.
Guerrilla has been criticized for "erasing" Black women from this story by having the female lead be an Indian woman; Ridley has explained that he is in a mixed-race relationship, and wanted to capture that dynamic. Of the Black women featured in the first two episodes, one (Black Mirror's Wunmi Mosaku) plays an informant who is sleeping with Pence; the other is Zawe Ashton's Omega, the activist who convinces Kent that Jas and Marcus' radical actions are too much.
It's definitely a problematic oversight, and the show is unlikely to come up with any concrete solutions to the race and immigration issues that, 46 years later, continue to divide society. But perhaps, simply watching two passionate people "do" something might inspire us to stick out our own necks.
Guerrilla premieres on Showtime on April 16.