Centre Stage: John Ridley

Still from John Ridley's show, Guerilla

Six years ago, Robin Bunce and Paul Field discovered the existence of the black power desk, a special counterintelligence unit headquartered in London and dedicated to crushing black activism during the ’60s and ’70s. Shortly afterwards, they wrote a book. Subject to a collective attack of amnesia, they argued the British black power movement was being written out of history. Now, the nation’s memory is set to be jogged. Birmingham City University will be the first to run a degree in Black Studies; a film is in the making, and two television series on the subject are about to be released, one directed by Steve McQueen, the other by John Ridley, both of whom won Oscars for 12 Years a Slave.

Set in London and based loosely around real events, Ridley’s show Guerrilla, starring Idris Elba and Freida Pinto, tells the story of a young couple who form an underground cell. Their target? The black power desk. For Ridley, who developed the show whilst working on his ongoing series American Crime and a documentary about the L.A. riots, Guerrilla’s central theme is that of consequence. “It’s the consequences of our actions,” he says. “It’s the cascade effect when you see individuals who are trying in every way to be part of the system and are continually denied that opportunity. Denied fair treatment and denied franchise.

“When you deny people equality, what do they do to achieve that equality? And what are the consequences of that?”

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Still from Guerrilla

Ridley began his career in New York, as a comedian. It was the 1980s, and a golden time for stand-up; every night, the clubs were rammed, and he was gigging alongside Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, and Jerry Seinfield, “who was a little older, but still very much part of that scene.

“To be young, to be in a club environment, telling jokes, writing your own material…” Ridley, now a veteran Hollywood resident, pauses. “It was a time like no other. It was really special.”

Gradually, he gravitated towards writing. He moved to L.A., and started to work on sitcoms, producing material for Martin and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He wrote a book, Stray Dogs, and adapted it into a film. He wrote more books; and made more films, carving out a reputation for himself as political, bold and remarkably elastic, equipped with a unique ability to write a graphic novel, and then move on to make a sparkling Hollywood movie.

Comedy, which never came entirely naturally to Ridley, soon faded from his repertoire. “At some point you realize that your day is being filled with writing, and you don’t even have time to write the jokes that you used to,” he says. “And your material—if it wasn’t great to begin with—well, it’s certainly not getting much better.”

For Ridley, working in TV today is weighted with a satisfying nostalgia—it feels similar to performing in those stuffy New York clubs all those years ago. “There has been a huge and wonderful expansion in the TV space,” he says. Television used to be traditional. Now, it feels exciting and edgy and unstoppable. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to write, to create, to be a storyteller. And I’m extremely fortunate to be part of it. I feel as if I’m in stand-up in the ’80s. You knew you were part of something special. Twice in my lifetime, I’ve had the opportunity to be part of something very special.”

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Still from Guerrilla

Ridley aligns the re-emergence of Guerrilla’s story with a broader social movement that is happening both sides of the Atlantic. “In terms of culture, more generally, we are an increasingly diverse society and people are making sure their voices are heard,” he says. But, as an American, he is acutely conscious of how fragile this sense of progress is, and how quickly it can come under assault. He draws upon his recent experiences in England as an example. “The nativist Brexit trend, which is very much about Britain, a kind of white English nationalism really, seems to be riding high.”

Ridley hopes that, operating in the tightening confines of this climate, Guerrilla can pave the way for other, similar stories to be told. “I don’t want the conversation to become, ‘Well, John did that already, so what’s the value?’”

He shouldn’t have to make the point that Guerrilla is just one story, amongst many, many others. But he feels he has to. “I hope those other individuals trying to get their stories made can point to our show and say, ‘Hey! If they did it, there’s an audience, there’s a space for it, there’s an appetite for it.’ I do believe that Guerrilla has opened doors to that kind of storytelling.”Isobel Thompson

All episodes of Guerrilla are available from April 13 exclusively on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV.

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