During a London screening last week of the first episode of Guerilla — an upcoming
Idris Elba show series on Showtime about London’s revolutionary Black power movement in the ‘70s — several audience members took note of the fact that the show was lacking in Black women main characters, as Screen Daily reports. Apparently the only Black female lead in the first episode is a police informant. I could write an entirely separate post about how this casting decision perpetuates a harmful myth about Black women participating in the racist subjugation of Black men that dates back to slavery, but I will save that for another day. What matters now is that the show’s director, John Ridley, took issue with being questioned about his decision to cast an Asian woman as the show’s lead protagonist. And his responses are more toxic than his actual erasure of Black women from the show.
Other sources, like Essence, have taken Ridley to task over his nonsensical defense that his own mixed-race relationship is the reason Black women are missing in Guerilla. However, that was not the only offensive response he had to offer. One audience member asked, “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.” The question is obviously a critique, but it’s still open-ended enough to not make assumptions about Ridley’s intentions. Unfortunately, the audience member was not afforded the same courtesy by the director. 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…”
The questioner cuts him off with the insistence that they actually don’t find it “difficult to accept” and are just trying to understand. I don’t blame them. The possibility that they can’t “understand” or “accept” solidarity from other non-Black people of color is a pretty condescending assumption. That Ridley couldn’t “accept” the role that Black women played in the British movement into his show — at least not in the first episode — meanwhile, is a fact. So a second audience member decided to tackle that erasure directly. “I’m not sure you quite answered the question,” they observed — and it feels like a pretty fair assessment. “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 U.K.”
Before Ridley could respond, one of the shows male leads, Babou Ceesay interjected, “Wow, really? You know this because you read about it?” Let that sink in. Ceesay thought it was better to question history and the questioner’s knowledge of it, than to consider that maybe Ridley got it wrong all these decades later. When the second questioner responded that they knew this history because “our parents were a part of it,” the audience began to disagree among themselves, prompting Ridley’s whole “mixed-race relationship” defense.
If this record of events is accurate, it is in line with what typically happens when Black men are held accountable for the way they choose to engage Black women. Too often, the response is a cocktail of defensiveness, avoidance, gaslighting, condescension and/or denial. It continues to break my heart that Black men like John Ridley can invest so much in being on the right side of understanding when it comes to Black history and representation — Ridley is responsible for the racially-driven anthology series American Crime, and wrote the screenplay for the 2013 film adaptation of 12 Years a Slave — but still come up so short when Black women are the focal point.