John Ridley “Cannot Entertain” Criticism Of Asian Lead Chosen For Series On British Black Power Movement

April 11, 2017  |  

John Ridley

HBO Golden Globes 2016 after party at the Beverly Hilton – Arrivals
Featuring: John Ridley
Where: Los Angeles, California, United States
When: 10 Jan 2016
Credit: Nicky Nelson/WENN.com

Guerrilla, the upcoming six-part TV series that tells the story of a group of activists in the British black power movement of the 1970s, hasn’t even had its debut in the U.K. or the U.S. yet and already it is at the center of controversy.

The Showtime/Sky Atlantic television event is slated to air April 13 in Europe and April 16 here in America and, as Shadow and Act accurately pointed out of the series’ focus, “For a love story set against the backdrop of one of the most politically explosive times in UK history, following the trials of Black revolutionaries within the British Black Power Movement of the 1970s, it was fully expected that the leads would both be black.” And as you can likely already tell, that is not the case.

Instead, Indian actress Freida Pinto was cast to play the lead role alongside Black British actor Babou Ceesay, and that struck an unhappy cord with moviegoers who expressed their concerns during a post-screening Q&A with the cast and crew last week. According to Screendaily.com:

One questioner addressed Ridley directly with her concerns: “My parents were a part of that movement [black power]. I want to understand why you decided [to make] an Asian woman the main protagonist.”

The audience member noted that the only prominent black female character in episode one is an informer against the movement for a racist, white police officer.

“I understand the contribution of Asians to this, but having an Asian protagonist making all the big decisions… does that get explained in subsequent episodes? We can’t ignore that,” she continued.

Ridley attempted to engage with the question: “To me, everything that you’re saying is exactly why that decision is so important. The fact that it’s difficult to accept someone, even though they are of colour, of being with us…”

“I don’t find it difficult to accept, I’m just trying to understand,” interrupted the questioner.

Ridley responded: “If everybody understood racism, oppression… there would be no reason to be doing this show. We would be doing Dancing With The Stars,” he joked.

“If there are things that are difficult to understand, accept, rationalise, despite the fact that if you understand the struggles of that time period… those elements are not made up, those are real,” Ridley continued.

“If there are any aspects of my show that are difficult to understand or accept, I feel I have done my job,” he added, drawing applause from the audience, “It is an incredibly valid question, but please accept that my answer is equally as valid.”

If Ridley’s response left you less than satisfied, you aren’t the only one. After his dismissal of the issue the attendee raised, another audience member pushed the topic. As Screendaily continued:

“[T]hat did not end the debate, with another questioner saying: “I’m not sure you quite answered the question – why are there no black women at the forefront of the struggle? That doesn’t necessarily accurately reflect what happened in the 70s in the UK.”

Babou Ceesay, who plays one of the male leads in the show alongside Idris Elba, was taken aback by the suggestion: “Wow, really? You know this because you read about it?”

“No, we know this because our parents were a part of it,” responded the second questioner.

With audience members now having vocal disagreements amongst themselves – with one loudly describing it as “the erasure of black women” – Ridley launched an impassioned defence of his project: “I said previously, I think the characters in this story are complicated across the board, so the concept that any one person is somehow better, or more elevated, or more appropriate than any other individual, I’m sorry, I don’t accept that.

“I don’t want to make this overly personal, but part of why I chose to have a mixed race couple at the centre of this is that I’m in a mixed race relationship. 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 wider world]. My wife is a fighter, my wife is an activist, and yet because our races our different there are a lot of things we have to still put up with.” he said, visibly holding back tears.

“This is one of the proudest moments of my entire life. This cast, this crew, the people involved in this show are the most reflective cast and crew that you will find anywhere. I’m sorry I cannot entertain a dialogue about whether the lead character in this show should be black or Asian – the lead character in this show should be a strong woman of colour.”

That actually sounds quite personal and quite irresponsible. I would’ve felt better if Ridley had used the tired “shows with Black leads” don’t sell line to justify the casting; that I could somewhat buy. But this idea that Black people are the ones who need to learn to see other people of color in the fight with us is laughable. We are always the ones standing up for other minorities and drawing parallels between their struggles and ours, and we’re always the ones left to defend ourselves when we’re disproportionately affected by a societal ill like police brutality. Furthermore, Ridley’s personal choice has now become a distraction. No one is interested in watching this series to have their eyes open to the fact that Asians and Indians care about Black people too. They’re wondering why the hell the Black women we know were instrumental in pushing this movement forward have been erased, just as the commenter said.

To make matters worse, Neil Kenlock, a photographer in attendance who was involved with the British black power movement as a photographer, defended Ridley’s casting choice, saying:

“I am probably the only person [here] that was in the Black Panthers, and what John [Ridley] did was exactly spot on. We had an Asian woman, and she was extremely active, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with what I’ve seen today.”

So one Asian woman among a sea of Black men and women constitutes her position as the central focus of a six-part television series? Sorry, I’ve seen that movie before. I’ve seen the white savior narrative far too many times to be interested in an Asian savior tale. Particularly, when Ridley’s motive is so people can see his Asian wife in a better light, not the Black women whose contributions to society are regularly ignored. Hard pass.

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