Oscar winner engages in heated debate about a lack of black women in his new Sky series.
Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley (12 Years A Slave) faced some tough audience questioning at last night’s premiere of his new Sky Atlantic series Guerrilla, with several attendees upset with what they described as “the erasure of black women” from the show’s story.
The six-part series, which will be on UK broadcaster Sky from April 13 (and Showtime in the US from April 16), chronicles a group of activists in the British black power movement of the 1970s.
Indian actress Freida Pinto stars as Jas Mitra, an Asian woman at the centre of the conflict who drives much of the narrative, at least in episode one, which was screened last night (April 6).
Her character’s prominence appeared to trouble some of the attendees at a post-screening Q&A with the cast and crew
One questioner addressed Ridley directly with her concerns: “My parents were a part of that movement [black power]. I want to understand why you decided [to make] an Asian woman the main protagonist.”
The audience member noted that the only prominent black female character in episode one is an informer against the movement for a racist, white police officer.
“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,” she continued.
Ridley attempted to engage with the question: “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 colour, of being with us…”
“I don’t find it difficult to accept, I’m just trying to understand,” interrupted the questioner.
Ridley responded: “If everybody understood racism, oppression… there would be no reason to be doing this show. We would be doing Dancing With The Stars,” he joked.
“If there are things that are difficult to understand, accept, rationalise, despite the fact that if you understand the struggles of that time period… those elements are not made up, those are real,” Ridley continued.
“If there are any aspects of my show that are difficult to understand or accept, I feel I have done my job,” he added, drawing applause from the audience, “It is an incredibly valid question, but please accept that my answer is equally as valid.”
However, that did not end the debate, with another questioner saying: “I’m not sure you quite answered the question - 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 UK.”
Babou Ceesay, who plays one of the male leads in the show alongside Idris Elba, was taken aback by the suggestion: “Wow, really? You know this because you read about it?”
“No, we know this because our parents were a part of it,” responded the second questioner.
With audience members now having vocal disagreements amongst themselves - with one loudly describing it as “the erasure of black women” - Ridley launched an impassioned defence of his project: “I said previously, I think the characters in this story are complicated across the board, so the concept that any one person is somehow better, or more elevated, or more appropriate than any other individual, I’m sorry, I don’t accept that.
“I don’t want to make this overly personal, but part of why I chose to have a mixed race couple at the centre of this is that I’m in a mixed race relationship. The things that are being said here, and how we are often received, is very equivalent to what’s going on right now [in the wider world]. My wife is a fighter, my wife is an activist, and yet because our races our different there are a lot of things we have to still put up with.” he said, visibly holding back tears.
“This is one of the proudest moments of my entire life. This cast, this crew, the people involved in this show are the most reflective cast and crew that you will find anywhere. I’m sorry I cannot entertain a dialogue about whether the lead character in this show should be black or Asian – the lead character in this show should be a strong woman of colour,” he concluded.
Neil Kenlock, who was involved with the British black power movement as a photographer, was in attendance at the screening. He added: “I am probably the only person [here] that was in the Black Panthers, and what John [Ridley] did was exactly spot on. We had an Asian woman, and she was extremely active, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with what I’ve seen today.”
As the heated Q&A wrapped up, Ridley was quick to engage in a further, more personal discussion with his questioners.
Speaking to Screen after the event, one member of Sky’s team noted that it had not been the first time the query about the ethnicity of the lead had arisen.
At the premiere, the question was also posed to Pinto by the BBC World Service’s Subi Shah.
Pinto explained that after reading the first draft she met with Ridley to discuss the characters: “What I understood after speaking to John [Ridley] was that black was not just the colour of the skin. It was political blackness, the oppressors and the oppressed, they were from former colonies and India was one of them.
“When we talk about diversity, not just here but in America, I find it non-inclusive when we don’t talk about the other people from other parts of the world, including the Asian population,” she said.