Sunday, April 16, 2017

REVIEW: 'Guerrilla' - Jas and Marcus Must Decide How Far They are Willing to Go for Social Change in '101'

Showtime's Guerrilla - Episode 1.01 "101"

London, 1971. In an age of open racism, fervent nationalism and anti-establishment passion, two politically engaged and idealistic young lovers, Marcus Hill and Jas Mitra, fight back against the injustice and deep-rooted prejudice they face on a daily basis. But, unbeknownst to them, they are being targeted by Special Branch's Black Power Desk, led by police officer DCI Nicholas Pence and his deputy, Cullen.

John Ridley has already proven himself to be an exceptional storyteller especially in regards to difficult subject matter. He has a unique perspective that has been important to see on television in the last few years. He's already behind one prestige series in ABC's Emmy-winning anthology American Crime. And now, he's expanding with yet another series in Showtime's Guerrilla. This show is a period drama set in London 1971 and airing on a premium cable network. All of that shows that it is remarkably different than his other television series. But Guerrilla maintains a mastery of tone and story. This opening hour is compelling to watch because of its intimate focus on a small number of characters as they deal with universal issues. It's tragic that they are fighting and hopeful for change when the audience knows that these issues are still problematic in 2017. But it also highlights the universality of the human condition. Fear of multiculturalism isn't an inherently American story. It's been a part of stories throughout the world for a very long time. Guerrilla is very timely in its subject matter but it also shows the impact of one's actions in the grand scheme of injustices as well.

This opening hour really beats Jas Mitra and Marcus Hill down. It does so because it needs to make it clear just how oppressive this world and the police are. London is a beautiful city. But this show needs to highlight just how horrifying a place it can be for non-white people. It's a city built by many cultural identities. And yet, it's a city thrown into turmoil over new legislation that would seemingly prioritize being white over everything else. It's a horrifying concept that is motivating many characters into action. However, it's also important to understand the leads and where they are in their lives. That way it's easy to understand the decisions they make as they become more radical in their actions. With Marcus, it's simply mistreatment while he searches for a job. Him teaching inmates is seemingly the only job he can get where he can actually do the job he wants. It's unappreciated as well. He understands the importance of a good education but it seems like a minor concern that isn't worth the effort to everyone else. He is broken because faceless white people label him as a troublemaker and only good for manual labor. It's casual racism that crushes his dreams and it's just an inherent part of this system. That's what gets him to go along with Jas' crazy plan.

With Jas, her motivations are told a little bit more than they are shown. It's through her interactions with an artist named Kent that the audience becomes aware of her backstory. She's an Indian immigrant in a relationship with a black man. She's fighting to expose injustice and curb police brutality because of the underlying oppression against all non-white races. It's not just a black-and-white issue. It's talked about in those terms. Plus, the people are fighting against the Black Power Desk - a unit of the London police department tasked with handling these race issues. But it's a universal battle that Jas believes in just as deeply because she's experienced mistreatment as well. She may be quick to radicalize because her father is imprisoned and she doesn't know if he isn't getting her letters or if he simply doesn't want to send any back. With Kent, he represents a hopeful naivety. He believes he doesn't need to support the cause because he's perfectly fine with the life he has. He thinks Jas can be a part of that as well. That would allow her to be happier. And yet, that's clearly not the path for Jas. She's willing to risk everything in her life in order to get things to change. She believes strongly in that.

It's important for this show to dramatize how easy and rational it can be for two individuals to go from peaceful protesters to radicalized, guerrilla warriors. In order for the audience to go along on this journey, it has to make sense for these characters to make these decisions. This opening hour does that simply by showing just how dangerous it is when these people do nothing. Everything that they do before the moment Jas suggests breaking Dhari out of prison doesn't work. It's a debilitating process. They are fighting for social change but every action they take only seems to make thing worse. They turn the police even further against them. Of course, it's all simply an orchestration by the police to keep the oppressive system in check. The force is run by Pence who is just so casually racist and menacing. When it comes to the protest, he essentially uses it to kill the leader of this movement. He needs Julian dead in order to maintain peace and order in his world. That's his core ambition. It's absolutely devastating to think that other black individuals would turn on their brother so easily. And yet, that's exactly what occurs. They do so in the hopes that it will lead to better lives for them as individuals. It's a selfish decision but one that is easy to understand as well. Julian's death just doesn't have the desired effect that Pence is hoping for. Instead, it only solidifies that Jas and Marcus aren't doing enough. Their best friend was killed simply for speaking his mind and demanding social change. Now, they need to take things to the next level.

Of course, it's also amusing to see how out of their depth Jas and Marcus are when it comes to busting Dhari out of prison. They want to do this because it's the only way to better the cause. Jas is inspired simply because she hears successful stories of political prisoners being busted out of prison throughout the world. She believes she can do that herself. And yet, she and Marcus simply don't have the money. They have enough to buy a gun and that's it. However, they are both very motivated and passionate. It's compelling to see them stage their own elaborate jail break. It turns out it wasn't as difficult as they feared. They just needed to figure out a plan and execute it. Of course, it still goes awry. These two aren't trained soldiers. They believe they need to do this but they are still surprised by the severity of the situation. This is a pivotal moment in their lives. There is no going back after they do this. After this, they will be political enemies as well. They will be the faces of black nationalization that need to be squashed as quickly as possible in order for the government to keep the status quo. They ultimately carry out this prison break because it's simply necessary to advance the cause. It's the only way for them to break out of this cycle. It potentially makes them killers though. In the moment, Marcus shoots his gun and possibly kills someone. Jas keeps a hostage alive as well. But it's clear that their actions are going to be twisted around to paint them as enemies that are a threat to civilized society. In the end, Jas and Marcus need to be okay with that. Jas' final line of "I'm so fucking cool" is all anyone needs to hear to know that she is devoted to this cause no matter where it takes her.

Some more thoughts:
  • "101" was written by John Ridley and directed by John Ridley.
  • It should be fascinating to see how Kent plays into the future of this story. The fact that he is played by Idris Elba suggests that he'll be a very important character - especially since Elba is also an executive producer. But right now, he seems like just a minor character who is reflective of the life that could have been for Jas.
  • Dhari is an important character because Jas rationalizes everything she does for the goal of getting him out of prison. She sees him as necessary to turn this situation around. He doesn't ultimately do much in this premiere though. So, the show is setting him up as this great and important character. Moving forward, they will need to deliver on that promise.
  • Learning more about the woman who is working with Pence and even lets him near her child should be interesting as well. She's the one whose actions ultimately lead to Julian's death. So, seeing things from her perspective is necessary too.
  • The scene that shows Jas, Marcus, Julian and Fallon getting stopped by the police is pivotal early on as well. It depicts just how corrupt the police are and how they abuse their powers. It's chilling to watch as one officer just sexually assaults Fallon while the others have to helplessly watch.
  • Freida Pinto is absolutely incredible on this show. She is so captivating as a performer in this role. And now, the Emmy race for Lead Actress in a Limited Series just got even more competitive. It's already the most crowded category this year with so many tremendous performances. This is just the start for Jas too. Her journey will probably only get more intense and gripping moving forward.
  • Jas: "They're changing the laws on us. People are going to ask what we did. I'm not going to tell them I sat on a fence." This is such a powerful and important line that really delivers on all of the central themes the show is striving for in the story.