Revolutions are integral to the history of people of color. And they’re increasingly seen in tensions growing closer to home in 2017. But where have all the South Asian women gone?
It seems in stories of race and revolution on screen, South Asians, specifically, South Asian women, are glaringly absent. Then walked in John Ridley’s Guerrilla.
The advertising for Guerrilla immediately captured me: “When you’re Black and British it’s a constant struggle to understand who you really are- citizen, or visitor” rings out as images of Babou Ceesay and Freida Pinto float across the scene. Here’s what I’ve been wanting to see in a British TV drama for a long time — intersectionality and South-Asian representation.
As a non-black person of color, I often wonder: where are all the South Asian people in these moments of revolution?
South Asians make up a large part of British society and have played a vital part in historical movements, including the UK Black Power movements of the 1970s. Yet they are underrepresented on screen and in literature. Only in recent years have groups such as the Gulabi Gang and the Southall Black Sisters been made visible, despite being around for decades. A comment about this was made in the first episode of Guerilla after Pinto’s Jas and Ceesay’s Marcus break a political activist, played by Nathaniel Martello-White, out of jail, an evening announcer over the radio says “All coloureds must be considered suspects.” People of Color existed, in this phrase, all under the banner of blackness, their individual nuances of specific cultures and races erased. They are all reduced to one body and one position the position: the immigrant Other.
However, for all its strengths, and its placement of this strong South Asian character in a center role, Guerrilla is overshadowed and undercut by its erasure of black women and Ridley’s own blindness to the political blackness activist groups of the 1970s and 1980s they were aligned with. Ridley’s cast is made up of actors that are as diverse as they are talented, but falls dishearteningly into the “and/or” dichotomy — different women of color are not permitted to occupy the same space on-screen.
“In Ridley’s quest to bring women of color to the center, he has managed to gag a large demographic integral to Guerrilla’s premise.”
Whilst this series comes at an important juncture of racial tension, it fails to address important issues of tension, race and erasure in real life. At a recent screening of the show, Ridley was confronted by Black Lives Matter activists who asked why his series systematically erased black female characters.
“My parents were a part of [the black power movement],” an audience member said to Ridley at the screener. “I want to understand why you decided [to make] an Asian woman the main protagonist. 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.”
Ridley responded with a derisive retort that didn’t quite answer the question. He used his own interracial relationship as a basis to defend his choice of lead actors, rather than articulate a response worthy of the question asked.
“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 color,” Ridley said, to audience applause.
Ridley ignores that his narrative seeks to present the female revolutionary as a blanket experience, insensitive to the nuances and differences that separate races and cultures. The Black Power and Civil Rights movements in both the US and UK are built upon the foundation of Black women, with their experiences being different from their South Asian counterparts. Under this banner of “women of color,” Ridley seems to project representation, but only up to a certain degree.
Pinto also failed to adequately explain her placement in the series over a black actress. Here she is in a position to depict a role that has never before been explored in a British drama and she remained frustratingly silent when pushed to explain it, instead she cried and allowed the media to blame BLM activists who asked the question for upsetting her.
The erasure of black women from a movement they are so profoundly entrenched within is a poignant reminder of the insidiousness of erasure — once one group is represented, another is neglected. In Ridley’s quest to bring women of color to the center, he has managed to gag a large demographic integral to Guerrilla’s premise. Ultimately it demonstrates that no matter how hard they work, or how important they are to the cause, brown and black women are always considered secondary.
As for the actual series, Guerrilla’s Jas is one half of an interracial relationship, a fighter, an activist, and a revolutionary who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty for a cause she believes in. Her performance is one of conviction, reminiscent of historical figures such as Mala Sen and Farrukh Dhondy, South Asian women pivotal to the movement in Britain.
“This erasure of black women mars the triumph of a strong brown woman on screen, as it perpetuates the ability for certain groups to remain unrepresented no matter how important, how vocal, or how influential they are.”
As the plot delves further, the pluralities of intersectionality are explored with Marcus and Jas’s relationship starting as one of strength and solidarity, later fracturing slowly and irrevocably. Their dynamic is interesting: him, the gentle, assuring presence, and her, the increasing radicalist pushing to take a stand. She starts at the periphery, speaking quietly, face set in defiance. But as time goes on, we see her assert herself and focusing on what she has to offer mentally, intellectually, and morally. Her character is by no means perfect, but presents a succinct version of a complicated character, rather than a two-dimensional caricature of a South Asian stereotype. Her relationship with her partner Marcus is also devoid of the traditional, often male-centric narrative of revolution. Their relationship seems to be one of equals, he respects her and she is able to call the shots. It is her that pushes to spring Dhari from prison, smuggling the means by which he is able to escape. For me, Guerrilla’s draw is not only the female lead, but its depiction of various people of color working together, the intersection between the races providing a platform by which finally, untold stories are given voice.
The narrative makes for gritty, uncomfortable viewing, challenging your beliefs and blurring the lines between right and wrong, however, the most lingering aspect that surrounds the series is what is absent. This erasure of black women mars the triumph of a strong brown woman on screen, as it perpetuates the ability for certain groups to remain unrepresented no matter how important, how vocal, or how influential they are. Guerrilla may have bought a fresh look at the history of people of color to screen, but it has a long way to go before it can be considered a success.