John Ridley Responds to 'Guerrilla' Race Debate: "This is Going to Be a Conversation Starter"

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John Ridley

The Oscar winner also reflected on working with the late civil rights campaigner Darcus Howe on the Showtime/Sky series, set amid the British Black Power movement of the '70s, saying that Howe would "have loved" the debates the series would spark.

At the premiere of the Showtime/Sky civil rights drama Guerrilla on Thursday in London, the post-screening Q&A didn't quite follow the usual, fluffy, congratulatory script.

Several members of the audience at the Curzon Bloomsbury cinema reacted strongly to the character played by  Freida Pinto, an Asian woman called Jas Mitra who finds herself at the militant heart of a movement battling racist elements of the British police force and legal system of the early 1970s. 

"Why are there no black women at the forefront of the struggle?" asked one audience member. "That doesn't necessarily accurately reflect what happened in the '70s in the U.K."

Another went so far as to suggest the writers of Guerrilla had, in putting an Asian women at the heart of the plot, overseen the "erasure of black women" from the story. 

Show creator, 12 Years a Slave writer John Ridley, responded by saying that should aspects of Guerrilla be difficult to understand or accept, "I feel I have done my job," adding that if "everybody understood racism, oppression ... there would be no reason to be doing this show ... we would be doing Dancing With the Stars."

But as the debate raged on, a visibly emotional Ridley, holding back tears, explained that the reason for choosing to have a mixed-race couple at the center of the story was because he was in a mixed race relationship himself. 

"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 world. My wife is a fighting, my wife is an activist, and yet because our races are different there are a lot of things we have to still put up with."

The historical accuracy of Ridley's decision was backed up by Neil Kenlock, seen as the British Black Power movement's official photographer. "What John did was exactly spot on," he said. "We had an Asian woman, and she was extremely active. There's absolutely nothing wrong with what I've seen today."

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter on Friday, Ridley explained how he fully expected Guerrilla, which also stars Idris Elba, Babou Ceesay and Rory Kinnear, to spark a debate. 

"If you’re dealing with race, if you're dealing with politics, if you’re dealing with people who have traditionally been considered 'others,' there is going to be someone, somewhere who is going to be upset about what you’re doing," he said.

"It’s not about agreement, it’s about allowing people in some way to have some thing that they can talk about, whether they agree or disagree ... start a conversation."

Ridley also discussed working with Darcus Howe, the noted British activist who was at the root of the U.K.'s civil rights movement, who died on Sunday. Alongside being a consultant on Guerrilla, Howe also appeared in one episode. 

"We spent a lot of time with him," said Ridley, adding he was unsure whether Howe would even speak to him at first. "Here I am, a foreigner, outside of that era. For him to say, ok, well John seems like an interesting person, seems like a knowledgeable and reasonable person, I'd love to talk to him, and to not just talk but to come on board and shepherd us and stay with us, and even make an appearance on the show ... it was very special."

While Ridley said that Howe had been able to see Guerrilla, he expressed his sorrow that he wouldn't be able to witness the debate that will — and already has — followed.

"This is going to be a conversation-starter, and Darcus is the kind of person who have loved that and would have loved for people to not be able to wrap their heads around it," he said. "I’m happy that he got to see it and be a part of it. What I know of him, he was not the kind of person who would have cared about the attention it would have drawn to him, but the kinds of conversations that would have started, that it will start, he would have loved."

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