Television

Guerrilla Lobs Bombs at Romanticized History of '70s Violence

Political terrorism intersects with pettier motivations.

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'Guerrilla'
'Guerrilla,' Showtime

Guerrilla. Showtime. Sunday, April 16, 9 p.m.

Before we get to everything else about Showtime's Guerrilla—how it's intelligent, insightful, resonant, well-acted and all that—let's deal with the mysterious question of why a show about an underground black-nationalist terrorist group of the 1970s, written and produced by Americans, would be set in Great Britain.

To be sure, London had its share (actually, much more than its share) of political terrorism in the 1970s. But nearly all of it was connected to the issue of Northern Ireland. Neither the British black-power movement nor the government response to it ever reached the extreme levels of violence that wracked their counterparts in the United States; there was no Mayfair chapter of the Black Panthers. The 1970s underground group that most closely resembles the one portrayed in Guerrilla was the Black Liberation Army, the Panther offshoot for which JoAnne Chesimard, a.k.a. Assata Shakur, robbed banks and shot it out with cops, but it was a purely American affair.

The most obvious answer for the show's peculiar venue is that it's a co-production with Great Britain's Sky TV, which seemed to suggest that Guerrilla's creator-writer-director John Ridley, who won a screenwriting Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, couldn't round up enough funding within the United States.

Why that should be is just one of those Hollywood imponderables. Guerrilla is a thoughtful and undidactic look at a time when the left went from nutty to nihilistic. In one 18-month stretch of 1971-72, the FBI recorded more than 2,500 bombings in the United States, more than five a day. And much of the revolutionary violence was directed not at the war in Vietnam, where American involvement was in steep decline, but at racial iniquities. Underground American groups like the Weathermen and the Symbionese Liberation Army explicitly declared that their violence was committed to combat black oppression, even if the fingers that were pulling the triggers or lighting the fuses were, in many cases, white. The Black Lives Matter movement is different in many, many ways, but the echoes are there nonetheless.

Frieda Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) and Babou Ceesay ('71) play the politically engaged young lovers Jas and Marcus. Marcus is a black teacher whose revolutionary impulses are strictly cerebral; trying to blaze the way for the fulfillment of Ho Chi Minh's dictum that "when the prison gates are opened, the real dragon will fly out," he spends his spare time teaching classes at a London jail, educating future cadres. Jas, a nurse and a red diaper baby with daddy issues (her father is in jail in India for killing soldiers), is less patient. "I have to be with someone who wants to do things," she warns Marcus.

They're both jolted to action when a black friend is beaten to death by cops at a protest rally. But they immediately learn how easily violence can spiral out of control, when, breaking a Marxist street criminal named Dhari (Nathaniel Martello-White, Red Tails) out of jail in hopes that he can provide their movement with more muscular leadership, they accidentally kill a guard.

Marcus is stricken by the blood on his hands, even when the hard-boiled Dhari scoffs, "No use talking you didn't do this, you didn't do that—you're in it." Jas, on the other hand, is enchanted to hear news reports speculate that their little group must be veteran revolutionaries, perhaps even an offshoot of the Panthers. "We're so fucking cool," she exclaims to Marcus, even as her newfound notoriety spurs her into new fits of rage.

Ridley's keenly observant script clearly draws on the multiplying accounts of life underground by 1970s survivors who've come in from the cold, not only for details of the grungy day-to-day existence (Jas and Marcus at one point are reduced to grabbing scraps of food off un-bussed trays of dirty restaurant dishes) but the larger issue of how radical rhetoric sometimes was sometimes false-flag justification for violence committed out of personal frustrations and jealousies.

Watching Jas taunt Marcus into becoming a left-wing Clyde Barrow to her Bonnie Parker, I was reminded of New Left bomber Jane Alpert's abashed confession that one of the most infamous terrorist actions in which she participated—the bombing of a Wall Street bank that sent 20 people away in ambulances—was mostly the work of her angry boyfriend. "Because I had threatened to abandon him, for even one night, by sleeping with another man," she wrote in a later memoir, "he had taken revenge on a skyscraperful of people."

Guerrilla captures that and much more. Anyone who was around as the bombast of the 1960s turned into the bombs of the 1970s will not be able to feel a sad nostalgia and a tragic sense of inevitability at this mesmerizing spectacle of naivete, idealism, kiddie bravado and ultimately the sheer stupidity of kids playing with fire. If you can remember the 1960s, goes the cliche, you weren't there. But in Guerrilla, the memories of the 1970s linger, and burn.

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  1. As a child of the 70s was fascinated by the radical groups I’d see in the news, including the Manson Family.

    1. I am much, much, much, much younger than you, but I can see why that time was fascinating, because something like the Patty Hearst story is nuts.

      1. I may have even been at Sac City College at the same time with Patty Hearst while she was with the SLA, although, of course, I wouldn’t have known it at the time.

    2. The first thing I remember like that was the Munich Olympics. It was on TV all day. I really had no idea what it was all about. I wouldn’t have known about it if I wasn’t spending a bunch of time at a friend’s house because my mom would have never let it be on when me and my sister were watching TV.

  2. This is almost a forgotten time in history, so this show looks promising. But, you know, it’s 2017, so the big issues will be that an Indian woman is cast as a black character, and the lead female character is bloodthirsty, and so on.

  3. And much of the revolutionary violence was directed…at racial iniquities.

    I think the word you want there is inequities.

    1. iniquity is “injustice”
      inequity is “inequality”

      it actually works either way

  4. Pretty safe bet that they’re using the book “Days of Rage” as the inspiration for this.

    1. Pretty safe bet that they’re using the book “Days of Rage” as the inspiration for this.

      that book came out (if i recall from glancing at the inside cover) in late-2015/early 2016. i think it would have to be a pretty-rapid process of inspiration-to-production-to-release for that to be the case. tho could be, i have no idea.

  5. Just finished Days of Rage a month ago. highly recommended.

    can’t speak to the TV show; seems odd to set it in Britain, for reasons already mentioned.

    also =

    much of the revolutionary violence was directed not at the war in Vietnam, where American involvement was in steep decline, but at racial iniquities

    I think that’s mostly right, but what i gathered it wasn’t an either/or thing. the SDS/Weathermen types didn’t want to merely protest the US involvement in the vietnam war = they wanted to emulate the Viet Cong-style warfare against the bourgeoisie at home. and they saw Blacks in America as being the natural “oppressed class” that would rise up en masse and join them once they saw people hitting back at the ruling classes.

    The most amusing parts of the book are anecdotes about when the SDS people and the Black Panther types actually came face to face and tried interacting. The net result was something like, “They took all our dope, fucked all our women, and then called us useless crackers and left”


    Here’s an interesting historical document
    which clarifies tensions between the SDS vs. Panther types from the very beginning

    1. Very interesting – and amusing – SDS vs. BP link, Gilmore.

      1. a short mention in that piece, here =

        During the national SDS convention in Chicago June 18-23, Panther party influence was important in the expulsion of the Progressive Labor party from SDS.

        this was sort of a central moment in the Days of Rage narrative, because it was basically at that event where there was a major schism between the student-lefties about ‘what direction future efforts should take’

        some (the SDS, who were a minority, but dominated student-leadership positions) felt there should be less focus on the ‘kumbaya’ sit ins and protests against US govt policy… and more direct efforts to integrate w/ black revolutionaries, and basically become some unified radical-movement to aimed at undermining the current racist-status-quo. (mainly by ‘killing cops’)

        the ‘progressive labor’ types thought the whole racial thing was ideologically wrong – that that aligning themselves with afro-wearing, gun-toting radicals would turn off the ‘working classes’, and isolate leftists; worth noting* – most of the SDS? were rich kids

        A few of the SDS leadership then split off after that meeting and formed the Weathermen. But the failure to connect with the Panthers remained a perpetual problem.They kept telling themselves that the purpose of all their actions was “racial liberation”, but the fact was that black groups mostly wanted nothing to do with them.

    2. the SDS/Weathermen types didn’t want to merely protest the US involvement in the vietnam war = they wanted to emulate the Viet Cong-style warfare against the bourgeoisie at home. and they saw Blacks in America as being the natural “oppressed class” that would rise up en masse and join them once they saw people hitting back at the ruling classes.

      Rather amusing that this fantasy appears to have been revised as a plot device in Revenge of the Nerds.

    3. Thanks for the recommendation Gilmore. I just downloaded it to my Kindle.

  6. And yet today we have the TSA, DHS, FBI, NSA et al all up our ass because…. terrorism! I remember the 70s fondly (really, pot was cheap!) and this doesn’t even get into the hijacking du jour or random bank robberies. A lot more shit was going on back then but nobody was cowering behind fox news and right-wing security daddies.

    1. Are you serious? Radley Balko has touched on the fact that a lot of the domestic violence that was going on during this period was what led Nixon to run as the “law and order” candidate and was a key factor in his winning campaigns in 68 and 72.

      I remember the 70s fondly

      Yes, yes–cheap drugs, slutty women, blah blah blah.

      1. And disco!

    2. I know— Now we have a generation that thinks Jon Stewart was “news”, Stephen Colnert is “”smart” and Shaun King (AKA “Talcum X”) is a leading “black” activist…

      Is it better yet?

  7. So… did Garvin even really say why he thinks there wasn’t enough funding to make this in America?

    It seems this is a story the Left, I mean Progressives, I mean Hollywood doesn’t really want told.
    Well, not accurately, at least.
    They would probably have jumped all over it, if it portrayed the domestic terrorists as unquestionable heroes.

    1. Agreed. Garvin pretty much answers the “Why no U.S. funding” with “Guerrilla is a thoughtful and undidactic look at a time when the left went from nutty to nihilistic.”

      The amusing part is that “nutty to nihilistic” pretty much describes the left’s reaction after Nov. 8, 2016.

  8. “Stupid is as stupid does” – F Gump

    1. “Life is like a box of Reason- You never know what your gonna get…”

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