Guerrilla’s John Ridley: ‘As Three Kings went through the system, George Clooney was unblackified’

The Oscar-winning writer of 12 Years a Slave on race in Hollywood, his must-suffer TV and his spat with Steve McQueen

Did John Ridley know what he was letting himself in for? When we meet the morning after the London premiere of his political drama Guerrilla, the busiest man in television still seems to be processing last nights audience reaction to his UK debut. I dont know if surprised is the word, he says, pensively. I think, unfortunately, sometimes these kinds of stories are both timely and timeless.

Amid the usual post-screening feting and fact-checking, several attendees asked about his decision to feature an Asian woman, played by Mumbai-born Freida Pinto, at the forefront of a film about Britains 1970s Black Power movement (the series also features Wunmi Mosaku and Zawe Ashton, albeit in less prominent roles). A heated discussion about the erasure of black women ensued, which has also spilled out on social media.

Let them @ him all they want: the 51-year-old writer-director-producer is no stranger to issues of black representation on screen and working with controversial historical materials (hes the auteur behind films such as 12 Years a Slave, second world war drama Red Tails and the George Clooney-starring war satire Three Kings). Ridleys knack for making provocative work has been honed by a relatively recent move to telly and shows such as the blunt and unrelenting American Crime.

Power play Freida Pinto in Guerrilla. Photograph: Sky

Guerrilla, currently showing in the UK on Sky Atlantic, is his latest project. It tells an imagined story of a couple, Jas and Marcus (Pinto and Babou Ceesay), as they form an underground cell to fight oppression. Co-starring Idris Elba, it is set within the real-life context of Londons 1970s Black Power movement and is a fiction anchored in reality, something of a stock-in-trade for Ridley. This is TV, this is easy; its real life that is difficult, he tells me when we meet in a Soho hotel the morning after the screening.

Over three seasons of American Crime on ABC in the States, but still without a UK broadcaster he has dealt with the intersection of criminal justice and race, peer-on-peer sexual assault in a school (shades of Steubenville), sex trafficking and the pivotal role illegal Mexican workers play in the US infrastructure (a subtle challenge to the Trumpian worldview). Ridley says that covering such subjects in an unshowy, unsentimental fashion (it has been labelled must-suffer TV by Slate) is about giving viewers a new perspective on themes that are in the news or, as often, ignored by it. Weve tried to deal with issue-orientated subject matter that it is very much in and of the moment, he says, but also something that people may not perceive to be so much of the moment until you put it in front of them.

The new season of the anthology series, starring his regular ensemble of Desperate Housewives Felicity Huffman and The Leftovers Regina King, makes for the most must-suffer yet. In one of its strands, we encounter Luis (Benito Martinez), an undocumented immigrant who crosses the border from Mexico in search of his missing son, with tragic results. The Trump administrations focus on immigration makes it even more prescient but Ridley will take no credit for that. We did not know that the discussions would come to such a pitch in our country, he says. Travel bans, building border walls and just grabbing people and splitting up families; the tenor of the conversation has gone to a place well beyond our expectations. This show represents what folks are dealing with.

Immigrant song Benito Martinez as Luis Salazar in American Crime. Photograph: Nicole Wilder/ABC/Getty Images

The 70s-set Guerrilla also mixes fact with fiction to explore what folks dealt with; it was never intended to be an exhaustive history document, he says. Shows like Mad Men or The Sopranos or The Americans; theyre just set in a particular time period and its used as narrative departure, its just part of our tradition, Ridley explains. On American telly, it seems to be something that we do and we dont sort of give it that same level of thought.

Not so in Britain, as he is discovering. Here, thanks in part to the imported TV and films that Ridley has had a hand in creating and also to British TVs failures when it comes to diversity, most people know more about the USs history of slavery and civil rights than they do about Britains own involvement in the slave trade, the Brixton uprising or the Mangrove Nine.

Then again, there is such a thing as Google. Was it Ridleys intention to encourage people to educate themselves about less well-known parts of British history? I dont think you can put it all on the audience and go: OK, youve got to look it up, but I do think you have to put things in there, he says. There are people gonna cross their arms and go: Aw, there wasnt a Black Power desk [a Special Branch team dedicated to discrediting the movements leaders]! And then theyll look it up and go: There was!

Ridley believes that instead of televisual escapism, TV should hold a mirror up to reality. It would have been nice for [Guerrilla and American Crime] to have been a little bit more of a pure what if, but what we depict in the shows is so close to peoples realities, which is really quite a painful thought, he says. When you see how people deal with race, interracial relationships and immigration and that they can barely handle a TV show with those issues covered, you realise that we have a lot of work to do in real life.

Ridleys game Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave. Photograph: FoxSearch/Everett/Rex

Difficult truths make confrontation necessary and Ridleys career history is littered with disagreements. His most public spat was with David O Russell, the notoriously short-tempered director of the 1999 film Three Kings, which was adapted from Ridleys story idea and script. Their row over credits is now resolved, but Ridley mentions in passing and without rancour that, in his original draft, Clooneys character was a black guy. As it went through the system he was unblackified, he says. Which is the reason I try to have a little bit more control over the work that I do.

Ridleys work on the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave gained him an Oscar for best adapted screenplay, but also a falling out with its director, Steve McQueen. Memorably, Ridley was seen to have slighted McQueen, by neglecting to thank him in his acceptance speech. When I ask about the current state of their relationship and whether the two ever talk, Ridley adopts an airy hauteur, reminiscent of that Mariah Carey meme in which she claims no knowledge of J-Lo. No, Im waiting for him to call, tell me how much he appreciates me. Im sure he will.

Guerrilla has been well received, with the notable exception of the aforementioned erasure of black women issue. Ridley will not concede the point but admits: I did not realise, unfortunately, that there continued to be a rather severe lack of representation of the various communities on British television and film.

Still, this critique must be particularly perplexing to him, given that black women have key production roles on Guerrilla, including producer Yvonne Isimeme Ibazebo and script editor Anna-Maria Ssemuyaba? Ridley says the issue of representation has been central to his work on and off-screen. Yknow, in Hollywood, there is an environment where the projection is inclusion [and] progressiveness. And yet, he says, I find myself constantly having to say: Your writers rooms are not reflective; Youre not hiring women to direct; The actors that youre hiring for roles tend to be of a certain kind. Also, the fact that recently weve had a spate of whitewashing on some TV shows and films in the States shows that its all the more important to speak up.

Black is back Babou Ceesay in Guerrilla. Photograph: Sky

Ridley had arrived in the UK assuming his experience of racism would also broadly translate. And thats not true. What folks experienced here was unique. He also did not realise that, for UK audiences, Guerrilla, one six-part mini-series, would be expected to do the work of a thousand TV shows, films and school history lessons that never were.

The reality of the British TV landscape may have taken Ridley by surprise, but Guerrillas firm footing in historical truth holds it steady all the same. As part of his process, he talked to the people who were there, including the late campaigner Darcus Howe, while police consultant Peter Bleksley offered insights on what it was like to serve as a Met officer during the period.

Howe appears in a brief cameo and Ridley says he came to consider him a friend. He was very giving and an amazing raconteur. Not, I did this, I did that; it was always We, yknow? He wasnt fighting to be lauded as a fighter, he was fighting because thats what folks had to do.

There are no romanticised revolutionaries in Guerrilla, either: Protesting is fine, spilling out in the streets is good, but at some point youve got to take that protest and orient it towards the system, says Ridley.

From fact to fiction Darcus Howe (second left) guests in Guerrilla alongside Idris Elba. Photograph: Sky

Guerrilla has been expected to bear a huge, probably impossible, burden in terms of representation, yet one of the shows great successes is reflecting the diversity of a movement. This may be painting with a broad [brush] stroke, but people in America have a certain admiration for the UK. From where we stand, it is a such a progressive nation, says Ridley.

The historical fact of British Asian involvement in black activism is part of that, but so too are the conversations between Kent (Elba) and Omega (Ashton) that explore gender difference, and the strained relationship between Marcus (Ceesay) and escaped convict Dhari (Nathaniel Martello-White), which brings class into the equation. Darcus talked a lot about how people were disagreeing with each other, even as everybody was coming together under the umbrella people of colour, says Ridley. Everybody had something that they wanted to deal with and it really turned into a bit of a free-for-all, because it was: Well, thats not my issue.

Watch the trailer for Let It Fall.

There is a certain bittersweet irony in Guerrilla being similarly beset with rows, such as the questions over erasure of black women. Happily, Ridley is fully capable of weathering any controversy storm; he so often finds himself in the eye of them, after all, and his upcoming projects seem unlikely to offer any respite. His documentary Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 airs at the end of this month and he has just announced an adaptation of No Place Safe, Kim Reids memoir about the Atlanta child murders of 1979-81. Both will sit in the category of must-suffer TV.

But what about the upcoming BBC historical drama set in Londons Caribbean community, which his erstwhile collaborator McQueen is reportedly working on? At this, Ridleys expression softens, because here, at last, is something we can all agree on. There are so many stories to be told, he says. All I can say is I hope there are many people who are working on them, and I hope they all come to fruition.

All six episodes of Guerrilla are available exclusively on Sky Atlantic and Now TV

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