A group of girls pose with schoolbags stencilled with the words “Black Power”. A young Indian man, Farrukh Dhondy, a teacher and member of the British Black Panthers, stands defiantly outside his recently firebombed home, holding the newspaper that details the bombing. Activists pose with clenched fists and a copy of Angela Davis’s If They Come in the Morning. The power of these images, taken by photographer Neil Kenlock, still resonates more than 40 years later, as does the story they tell: a tale of oppression, resistance and a community’s fight for survival and for change.
It is a story that has been largely ignored down the years. Now the black power movement, and in particular the British Black Panthers, find themselves back in the spotlight. There is a photography exhibition at Tate Britain, Stan Firm Inna Inglan: Black Diaspora in London, 1960-1970s; a proposed film about the Mangrove Nine trial in which the late Darcus Howe and fellow Black Panther Althea Jones-Lecointe successfully defended themselves against charges of incitement to riot; a celebration of Howe’s life at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton; and the arrival of Guerrilla, a new drama series written by 12 Years A Slave screenwriter John Ridley, which airs on Sky Atlantic.
“My initial reaction was that my story just didn’t feel like a British story,” Ridley says. San Francisco’s Bay Area was where he had planned to set his tale of a young couple in the 1970s who find themselves increasingly radicalised and ultimately moved to violence. “But after speaking with Darcus [Howe], Farrukh [Dhondy] and Neil [Kenlock], I began to see that there were elements that were very, very similar. The struggles, the small indignities, the sense of a collective working together. As an American we tend to look at the UK as being so progressive and elevated with Windrush, and that is true to an extent, but beneath that there were troubles, issues, disregard and disenfranchisement.”
He credits Howe with helping him understand the similarities and, crucially, differences between the two movements. “For someone like Darcus to say, ‘OK, you’re an American, you’re coming from a different perspective but I trust you’, it meant the world to us,” he says. “He, Neil, Farrukh and Leila Hassan shared their memories and put us in the emotions and headspace of that time.”
The result is an intense piece that captures the febrile atmosphere of Britain in the 1970s, when an establishment clinging desperately to the last remnants of a dying empire butted heads with the newly arrived citizens of those former colonies, who themselves discovered that the much-imagined motherland offered a far colder embrace than the one they dreamed of. “It feels like a time capsule,” says Robin Bunce, a historian at Homerton College, Cambridge, and co-author of Howe’s biography, Renegade. “It’s a picture of the period rather than a definitive truth but what it does do very well is show how much the British movement was informed by the colonial experience. It’s by no means intended as a picture of the whole movement.”
Paul Reid, the director of the Black Cultural Archives, agrees. “It’s first and foremost a drama,” he says. “In Britain, people didn’t actually pick up guns to fight as they do in Guerrilla. Instead what happened was a grassroots organisation. Our story is one of constant community activism and social responsibility. It’s a quieter story, perhaps, but one that still needs to be told.”
Ridley admits that the decision to have his central couple turn to violence was deliberately provocative. “In America you can have your Walter Whites and your Tony Sopranos who act outside the law and when white people are doing that it’s romanticised and exciting, but put a gun in a black man’s hand and it’s like ‘Excuse me negro what are you doing?’ It becomes politicised.”
That said, he stresses that the violence within the show is not presented as the only option, or even the right one. “Guerrilla is about how you get to that point where an individual feels so minimised, put upon and disregarded that they feel they can no longer be part of the fabric of society and then what happens after you get past that point,” he says. “But there are consequences to these actions. It’s not a romantic vision of what it means to take up arms.”
Historical accuracy or otherwise is not the only issue surrounding the show. At a tense Q&A session after the premiere last week, repeated questions were asked about why there were so few black women in the opening episode, given the central role played by women such as Althea Jones-LeCointe, Barbara Beese and Olive Morris in the movement. Ridley remains bullish about his decision to cast Freida Pinto, an Indian actress, in the lead and to have a mixed-race couple at the centre of his story.
“I absolutely expect that there is going to be further pushback and I honestly hope there is,” he says. “Because part of what we are saying is that a white person walking down the street at this time would look at them and say ‘Oh, those blacks’. To the outside world they’re both black but the reality is that they are a mixed-race couple. Their love and commitment is a big part of the show because they have to fight for that. They’re down for each other. There are people who will have a problem with that, and I hope that they do because that problem is also part of the story we’re telling.”
And what does work is the sense that we are watching an untold or secret history. Like David Peace’s cult crime novels, including the Red Riding quartet, Ridley’s television series picks at the threads of British memory and forces us to consider how we once were and how we still might be. “All nations tell stories about themselves that place them in a good light,” says Bunce. “So in the UK the story is about how we gave independence to the Caribbean, not how they took it back. We talk about the 1965 Race Relations Act but not how people took to the street and fought.”
Bunce’s co-author, the journalist and lawyer Paul Field, agrees. “I think there’s a real denial on the part of many people about racism in this country,” he says. “There is a history of miscarriages of justice against black and Irish people that is linked to the history of colonialism. Guerrilla taps into some of the major issues of this time and it also shows how very British and genteel that racism could be. I really hope that after watching this people then explore the real history.”
It is a message that rings particularly true in today’s climate where teenage asylum seekers are set on by mobs and anti-immigrant graffiti defaces walls. “Where I think Guerrilla works is the way it looks at the brutality and discriminatory attitude of some white folks,” says Reid. “You have to remember that the police and establishment really considered the British Black Panthers a threat. These were people who took on the legal system at the Mangrove Nine trial, invoked Magna Carta and won. They weren’t throwing stones – they were reading and writing books. They were considered a serious intellectual threat.”
Why then has it taken so long for their story to be told? Dhondy, who moved into journalism, writing and television after the British Black Panthers collapsed amid infighting, power struggles and “kangaroo courts”, admits that the idea often crossed his mind. “I was a commissioning editor at Channel 4 from 1984 to 1997 and of course I thought of putting that history on TV,” he says. “But to be honest if I’d said ‘Let’s do a series about the black power movement’, I think Michael Grade would have just thought ‘Oh, he just wants to write about himself’ and wouldn’t have agreed.”
He hopes instead that Guerrilla will make people reconsider the period and the movement. “It’s a fictionalised history but I hope it will bring the attention of the nation to the fact that this movement transformed the country,” he says. “The multi-ethnic drift from ex-colonies was substantial, inevitable and also irresistible. No little atavistic fears, despite Brexit, are going to change that. The black power movement, and Darcus, helped make Britain what it is today.”
Elena Crippa, the co-curator of Stan Firm Inna Inglan at the Tate, agrees: “British culture has always been the result of exciting cross-pollination,” she says. “There’s often this terrible fallacy that British culture is in some way contaminated by the arrival of people from elsewhere. In reality, the old branches and the new flourish together.”
Away from the controversy, Ridley’s main desire is for Guerrilla to kickstart a conversation about the kind of stories we prioritise on TV and in film. “I think it’s a solid piece of storytelling and I hope it will mark the beginning of a cycle of these kinds of stories of people of colour and their experiences, whether documentaries or fictional narratives,” he says. “This isn’t just black history – it’s British history and it needs to be told.”
All episodes of Guerrilla are available from 13 April on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV. Stan Firm Inna Inglan is on at Tate Britain until 19 November.