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Fierce row over casting of Freida Pinto in TV drama about British Black Panthers

Fierce row over casting of Freida Pinto in TV drama about British Black Panthers

At launch last night director accused of ‘erasing black women’ – he defends casting and says prejudice against interracial couples has to be tackled too…

NEW Sky Atlantic ‘Guerrilla’ series creator John Ridley (‘12 Years A Slave‘) came under fire last night at the launch ‘for erasing the experience of black women’ in the British Black Panther movement – as an argument developed about the casting of Freida Pinto.

The quarrel blew up after a premiere screening of the first instalment of the new six-part series which airs from April 13 on UK’s Sky Atlantic channel.

Ridley visibly affected by the criticism from several guests felt compelled to stand up and defend his choices (see video below) at the screening at Curzon Bloomsbury in London.

He later approached the individuals and continued to discuss the matter, which revolves around the casting of Freida Pinto in what is one of the lead roles in the new TV mini-series.

She plays ‘Jas Mitra’ who is in a relationship with ‘Marcus’ (Babou Ceesay) and she has a pivotal part in episode 1, urging both Marcus and Kent (Idris Elba), her former flame, to become more active in an increasingly violent struggle.

The couple see a close black friend beaten to death by police on a peaceful protest march against the far right National Front.

Ridley’s critics, on the evening, said they had no problem with interracial relationships or its depiction in ‘Guerrilla’ but felt there were not enough black women represented in what was a drama essentially about the British black community.

Ridley said one of the reasons why he cast Pinto was because he wanted to highlight interracial relationships – was in one himself – and felt there was too much scrutiny and criticism from some quarters about such couplings.

He also urged his critics to watch all six episodes before casting judgement.

Actor Zawe Ashton, who appears in episode 1 as ‘Omega Christine Moore’, a British Black Panther activist, leapt to her director’s defence and said that as a woman of colour she in no way felt unrepresented or diminished.

A one-time member of the British Black Panther movement also raised his voice in defence of Ridley, saying there was a very active Asian woman in the movement – Mala Sen.

The drama is a radical take on a real UK movement, which was led by Darcus Howe, who died recently and now writer and critic Farrukh Dhondy who was from India and a Parsi (in the 1970s everyone who was not white was considered black, today that idea is called political blackness). Both were consultants to ‘Guerrilla’ – Dhondy did not attend as Howe had only died on April 1, and was said to be comforting the family. Sen was married to Dhondy at the time when the British Black Panthers emerged.

Set in 1970s Britain, during a time of great social upheaval – with the controversial Immigration and Nationality Act of 1971, Nazi National Front marches and some mainstream politicians calling for forcible repatriation of Britain’s non-white communities, the series asks what if the British Black Panther movement had turned violent?

Ridley is best known as the Academy Award winner for his adapted screenplay of ‘12 Years a Slave’. A novelist and one time stand-up his TV series ‘American Crime’ (2015) has been much lauded.

A writer, Sen is best known for her biography of Phoolan Devi, a low-caste woman who was raped by high-caste men, and later became a Dalit champion, and Indian MP and was then murdered. Her life was made into a successful biopic, ‘Bandit Queen’ by Channel 4, directed by Shekhar Kapur, starring Seema Biswas. You can see her talking to us in Cannes last year about that film here

‘Guerrilla’ is a co-production with US company, Showtime.

Review: This is a real slice of history, raw and difficult though it might be. The state, as in the form of the police, was racist. Not institutionally so, just plain racist. They beat up folks for simply being black or brown, or just not white. Against this background, a resistance movement – the British Black Panthers, is growing, with both Marcus (Ceesay) an unemployed English teacher and Jas (Pinto), a nurse, already drawn to the struggle for justice and dignity.
On the sidelines is Kent (Elba) who eschews any call for direct or violent action and whose relationship to the movement is further complicated by being Jas’s ex-partner.
The enemy from the outset is clear – not just the police but DCI Nicholas Pence (Rory Kinnear), a former Rhodesian army officer or police officer (it isn’t specified) drafted into the ranks of the notorious Special Branch, which is charged with monitoring the Black Panthers.
What director and writer Ridley has done is produce complex characters involved in a bitter fight. Though DCI Pence looks like an out and out racist, he is actually involved with a black woman (Kenya Sofoluwe/Wuname Musaki) and has a child from the relationship, so things are not clear cut. Well-acted and well-composed, this is fine drama but the representation row and the question what can this do in practical terms, may become more pressing and critical points for some, as the series gathers momentum. (Sailesh Ram)
ACV rating:***1/2 (out of five)

‘Guerilla’ begins on Sky Altantic UK at 9pm on April 13. All episodes of Guerrilla will be available from April 13 exclusively on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV

Our interviews with John Ridley, Freida Pinto, John Ridley and Idris Elba be out next week!

Picture gallery from Guerrilla Red Carpet

Freida Pinto being interviewed and talking about character

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture