The new Showtime series Guerrilla has all the makings of great television. It features an amazing cast that includes Idris Elba and Freida Pinto, and it recounts a powerful moment in British history: the Black liberation movement of the ‘70s. However, ahead of last night’s premiere in the U.S., we were already aware of one of its flaws — the erasure of Black women. When I wrote about this erasure, and creator John Ridley’s reaction to the criticism, I hadn’t seen the episode yet. I thought that I would notice the lack of nuanced Black women characters as an annoyance, not as a mistake that would take away from the overall value of the show. After all, I tuned in for six seasons of Girls keenly aware that people of color existed almost exclusively on the periphery. Unfortunately, I don’t think this will be the case with Guerrilla. Not only does it ignore the labor of Black women in this movement, it does so in a way that relies on harmful stereotypes and myths about us.
Ridley made it clear that Guerrilla is a reflection on his own role as a Black man in a mixed-race relationship. He wants audiences to warm to the idea of solidarity and allyship from non-Black people, as if we’ve never considered such revolutionary partnerships. What the show seems to offer in terms of Black liberation is Black men’s freedom to be in love with non-Black women. Sure, we see injustice reach brutal peaks with the murder of a radical activist, but the salt in the wound is that he was also forced to watch his white girlfriend get groped by an officer.
The tensions that arise in the movement directly correspond to those in the personal relationship between its leaders, Marcus (Babou Ceesay) and his Pakistani girlfriend Jas (Pinto). That the Black male leads are in interracial relationships wouldn’t be an issue in Guerrilla if Black women played different roles in the episode.
Here is how Black women show up: At an organizing meeting, a Black woman leads the dissent against Marcus’ movement strategy; another Black woman at the same meeting demands that the crowd let Marcus speak; they dance provocatively at a party; Kenya is the lover of a married white police officer who provides him with information to sabotage the growing movement. In other words, they are the angry opposition, the sexy visual aides, and the literal downfall of Black empowerment when they align themselves with white men, as if not they are not also affected by racism. Police brutality is represented in the episode with the sexual assault of a white woman and the murder of her Black revolutionary boyfriend.
If Ridley refuses to decenter his own perspective in the creation of Guerrilla, I’m refusing to decenter mine in my experience watching it. Too often in both politics and culture, non-Black women — allies or not — are uplifted at the expense of Black women, never in tandem. It’s assumed that we can’t fully grasp the goodness of Jas without the inherent badness of Kenya. Guerrilla reinforces the idea that in order for non-Black women to be visibly celebrated, Black women have to be vilified or invisible.
In regards to my Girls comparison, I can already hear a figure like Ridley, and some of the other “woke” Black men in my life, demanding to know: “If you can support a white woman’s flawed show, why can’t you support a Black man’s?” The answer is simple: A wrong done against you always hurts more when it’s committed by someone you love. No shade, but I expect for people like Lena Dunham to not get Black characters right. It’s like leaving my car doors unlocked on a busy city street. However, I still always hold onto the hope that Black men will honor Black women and the role we have played in building up our communities. The biggest let down of Guerrilla is the realization that this hopefulness might be in vain.
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