One thing is clear: John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “12 Years a Slave,” is on his way to TV greatness, if he hasn’t quite arrived there yet.
With “American Crime” and, now, “Guerrilla,” the ambitious writer-director works with serious and complicated issues, buoys them with inspired storytelling and camera techniques, and stirs his actors to deliver fully dimensional and riveting performances. He knows how to frame broad questions about race, class, justice, and social change within the confines of intimate stories that bring to life particular people and their pain. Like David Simon, creator of “The Wire” and “Treme,” he keeps one eye on the whole colony, the other on specific ants.
“Guerrilla,” a six-part miniseries that premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on Showtime and was co-produced by Britain’s Sky TV, is set in racially explosive London in the 1970s. It’s a thought-provoking look at a peaceful leftist couple who get swept up in militant violence because of their deep beliefs, and it’s also a depiction of the equally powerful emotional prods behind their behavior. All of the major characters are driven not only by their public views, but by personal motivations that lurk in their unconsciousness.
Marcus (Babou Ceesay) can’t get work teaching English; the folks at unemployment keep pushing him toward manual-labor jobs because he is black and a “troublemaker.” Ceesay is extraordinarily sympathetic, as he contains his rage behind a still face. Jas (Freida Pinto) is an Indian immigrant and nurse with a fierce sense of anger and an activist father in jail in India. With a somewhat romanticized view of violent conflict, Jas nudges Marcus to be more aggressive in their causes. “I have to be with someone who wants to do things,” she tells him, impatient with his deliberate approach to the racial harassment they and their friends face.
After one friend is brutally targeted and murdered by cops at a protest rally, Marcus and Jas decide to do what Jas calls a “direct symbolic action.” They break black activist Dhari (Nathaniel Martello-White) out of jail to serve as a movement leader, and in the process they kill a guard. As they and Dhari go on the run, living with underground figures of different nationalities and surviving on edible garbage, they’re all over the nightly news — something Jas rather likes. Meanwhile, the head of Scotland Yard’s Black Power Desk is after them. Detective Pence (Rory Kinnear) is racist like the other cops we see, who humiliate and insult black people at every turn, sometimes in scenes that are excruciating in their length; but then, this being Ridley, Pence has a secret life that convolutes his behavior.
There is so much in “Guerrilla” that reflects on the present tense in America, with the growing number of political protests, with the Black Lives Matter movement, with people getting sucked into terrorist activities. The path that Marcus and Jas take turns into a slippery slope very quickly. All their idealism and youth get twisted into unrecognizable shapes. It’s a tragedy, an old tragedy told anew, with vigor and insight, sadness and resonance.
Starring: Freida Pinto, Babou Ceesay, Rory Kinnear, Nathaniel Martello-White, Idris Elba, Daniel Mays
On Showtime, Sunday at 9 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew