Shock! A TV drama in 2017 that needs a few episodes to hit its stride?
Stone the crows! I just can’t believe that such a thing exists.
Alright, settle down. It’s not even like this starts on a particularly uneven note. It’s just that, like what we’ve seen of “American Crime,” Ridley has a certain dourness to his tone in this territory. There’s not a lot of lightness to be found, and it initially sets it up to be a more punishing, and more familiar watch than it turns out to be. It’s worth giving two episodes rather than one, is all we’re saying.
Fine, fine. But it gets there?
It does, it gets really absorbing within a few episodes, and turns out to be a deceptively easy binge (we got through all but the sixth and final one before writing this without quite realizing how fast we were going). From the off, Ridley beautifully recreates 1970s London, keeping things realistic while giving proceedings a certain revolutionary glamor that makes it pop.
So the filmmaking’s alright? Cos Ridley’s Jimi Hendrix movie was sort of pants.
Yeah, it’s really good. It has a very particular rhythm to it, with Ridley holding long shots on one side of a conversation and jumping through time in interesting, Nouvelle Vague-y ways. It’s not flashy, but it works brilliantly.
So what makes it get better as it goes along?
The nuance of the thing. From the off, Ridley immediately shows how deeply tipped the scales are, the systematic racism and inequality of British society, and that’s always there as a given, and always something that should be urgently fought against. But as it goes on, he brilliantly weaves of web of politics, motivations, interests and beliefs within and without the movement. Do they have real aims, or are they poking randomly where they can? Do they have natural allies in the other groups struggling against the system, or are their various aims in conflict with each other? Is Marcus’s heart really in the struggle? Is Jas looking for martyrdom? Is Dhari a brilliant political leader, or a sleazy criminal, or both? And how does Marcus and Jas’s relationship affect the rest?
Ok, I’m intrigued.
This complexity isn’t just within the cell, either. Kent’s struggle with his conscience and his role in black society is lower stakes but still highly compelling (especially once the great Zawe Ashton turns up as a black community leader). And even the bad guys’ arcs go in fascinating directions – Pence is far from the one-dimensional racist that we meet, to begin with, and Cullen’s character shifts and mutates in interesting directions.
Plus shootouts and shit, right?
Hmm, if you’re looking for action, this might be the wrong show for you. There’s the occasional burst of something, but for the most part this stays truer to life and doesn’t throw too much in the way of fireworks at you. It’s closer to something like “Treme” in the way it puts ideas and character first, but it does still grip in its thriller elements, particularly as it nears the conclusion and becomes almost breathlessly suspenseful.
So what’s the best part of it?
Maybe the performances? Elba aside (again, he’s good, but happy to let others take the meatier material), this isn’t a super famous cast in the U.S, but everyone does stellar work. Pinto’s probably the best-known face, but she’s frankly revelatory here, with a fire and ferocity that her work in “Slumdog Millionaire” could never have suggested in a million years. Ceesay (who’s also really good in Ben Wheatley‘s “Free Fire,” also out this week) gives an extraordinary level of depth to his turn, and Martello-White’s twitchy, unpredictable presence is impossible to take your eyes off. But really everyone’s kicking ass here, with Gough, Mays, Ashton and Mosaku particular standouts too.
And the worst?
Again, we’d love if it had just a little more tonal dexterity going on – it can feel a bit one-note at times. And it probably goes without saying that it feels a touch over-extended: four or five hours rather than six might have been perfect, there’s a little bit of filler as it is.
Alright, I’m sold. But what controversies will be fuelling the thinkpieces and make me feel queasy about enjoying the show?
Well, there’s already been something brewing, after a confrontation at a Q&A in London, about Ridley minimizing the role of black women in the movement. By making the most prominent figure in the black radical group an Asian woman, some have suggested, it erases the real life Afro-Caribbean women who took part and their role in the struggle. Worse still, the most prominent black woman in early episodes is Kenya, who is an informant.
What do you say to that, then?
Bearing in mind that I’m a white dude and not the best person to judge this in any way, it seems a touch unfair. Historically, ‘black’ was used by British radicals at the time as an umbrella term that included and embraced Asian women, and Ridley himself has said he went in that direction partly to reflect that, and partly to reflect his own history in a mixed-race relationship. Indeed, solidarity among the oppressed is one of the main themes of the story being told here. It is true that it wouldn’t have been hard to make, say, the American Black Panther character a woman and tip the gender balance slightly. But it’s also not true to say that it erases black women altogether – Ashton and Mosaku’s characters become increasingly important as the show goes on, and not always in the direction that you think.
But again, you’re a white dude.
Again, I’m a white dude, and you should seek out other voices on this.
Ok, sweet. So when is this on?
Showtime – the first episode is on their VOD system, and it’ll air every Sunday for the next five weeks. If you’re in the U.K. and have Sky Atlantic or Now TV, the entire series is available to binge right now.
And a grade?
A-, before having watched the finale. (UPDATE: I watched the finale, and while it tipped it perhaps more towards a B+ than towards an A, I’m happy with the A- grade).