A few years ago, the American screenwriter John Ridley was working in Britain. He learned a bit of history that felt at once new and familiar — of a time in the 1970s when Britain struggled with that American-sounding question: Who are we?
It involved “issues of immigration, and who was really British and who belonged in this country,” Ridley says. “All of those things that were embedded, things that I was completely unaware of.”
Now, Ridley — who won an Oscar for his 12 Years a Slave screenplay — has written and directed a new Showtime series about that moment. It’s the story of a time when Britain welcomed immigrants of color from former colonies to work, but didn’t give them many opportunities. One scene shows a well-educated black man talking — we think — to a white man at an employment office about getting a teaching job. But all he’s offered is work as a driver or a porter, and gradually, like others in his situation, he turns toward violent solutions.
By the end of the first episode, Ridley’s characters have broken a radical black leader out of prison — which is why the show is called Guerrilla. Ridley says there’s a reason he showed a teacher being humiliated at that employment agency desk.
“One of the things that was very important to us, frankly, was to not do a show about crazy people of color grabbing guns,” he says. “To show people who have struggled as best they could to be part of the system. To contribute … to have value. But unfortunately, in our country, in America, in the U.K. at that time period, there were lines that were drawn. People were not interested in what you could potentially do, they were only interested in what they thought one could do.”
On getting into the frame of mind of someone who commits violence
It was difficult. Because for me, I very sincerely, I don’t think violence is a solution. I don’t think it’s an an answer, but I think we see time and time again that when real, positive long-term solutions are not presented to people, there are individuals who will turn to violent acts. What was very important, what I think was represented in [the show] was, it wasn’t a sudden jump. It wasn’t as though these two individuals woke up and said, “We’re going to do this.”
On whether the show is a commentary on race in the United States right now
No. This story, honestly, it was something that was fascinating to me as a kid, it was something that I felt deserved further exploration as I got older. It was a project that I started working on in earnest almost 10 years ago. And despite the fact that the setting was more than 40 years ago, there are elements that people can draw a direct parallel to between what happened then and what happened now. That’s without any effort. And that tells me there’s a problem with our current set of circumstances, when immigration, when demonization, when marginalization is still the norm.
On whether digging into heavy subjects drags him down
It does. I mean, I can’t lie to you. I try to make it less about me, and I try to make it more about other people and their lives and their experiences. And you end up realizing that you’re carrying around a lot of things that other people have trusted you with. And that you have an obligation to try to get it right. But at the same time I’ve been blessed, I’ve been truly blessed with having the opportunity to put stories into the culture that other people seem to either actively ignore or be afraid to speak to.
Editor Shannon Rhoades, producers Danny Hajek and Gabriela Saldivia and web producer Petra Mayer contributed to this story.