Farrukh Dhondy reveals the inside story of the black power movement that fought against institutional racism in 1970s London – and as an Indian-born activist he defends the casting of Freida Pinto
On 15th March 1973, Farrukh Dhondy was the victim of a firebomb. A member of the British Black Panthers, Dhondy was asleep in a squat on Railton Road in Brixton – known back then as “The Frontline”. On the ground floor was a bookshop selling propagandist black literature. In the middle of the night, Dhondy woke up struggling to breathe. “I felt like I was being choked,” Dhondy says. “I felt like somebody had put a pillow in my mouth.”
When he opened his eyes, he was surrounded by smoke and the staircase leading up to his bedroom was ablaze. He jumped out of the second floor window and crashed to the pavement. “Glass was bursting from the bookshop windows, it was all boom! Bang!” When he jumped he busted his ankles, injured his knees, and got badly burnt all over his body. He suspects that the culprits were National Front thugs, who had bombed five other south London locations that day, but because the police never investigated the bombing, it was never solved.
Indian-born Dhondy, now 73-years-old, is one of the British Black Panthers who not only inspired Sky’s new drama Guerrilla, but also advised its writer-director, John Ridley, and its cast including Freida Pinto, Babou Ceesay and Idris Elba. The series is an unflinching dramatisation of the black power movement in 1970s London, and follows activist lovers Jas and Marcus (Pinto and Ceesay) as they fight against a vicious branch of the Metropolitan Police.
Farrukh was part of what he calls the “politburo” of the Black Panthers, a party which stood against the discrimination of people of colour in Britain at a time when police brutality was rife, ethnic minorities were refused service in pubs, and many were unable to get professional jobs – made instead to do the “dirty” jobs that the white working class declined to do.
The Black Panthers provided education and legal advice to people of colour in an era of institutional racism which is rarely acknowledged. They organised demonstrations and strikes, and helped workers who were not unionised, not paid properly, and had their social rights violated at work. Dhondy calls it “a movement of the interventionists”. He wrote a book about his experience called London Company, and after reading this, Ridley – who also penned the Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave – asked Dhondy to be a consultant on Guerrilla. He even asked him to edit the script.
“I told them what was likely, what was probable, what was extremely improbable, what was completely out-of-kilter with the real history,” Dhondy explains. When “Ridley had riddled the scripts with Black-American abuse”, using slang like “Hey motherfucker”, Dhondy replaced it with terms like “Bloodclart”, which was the preferred cuss on this side of the pond. Dhondy helped Pinto, too, with her accent. “Her speech coach recorded my voice for its intonations. Half Indian and half educated Brit, I suppose.”
There has been much debate about Pinto’s character, Jas, in Guerrilla, who is an activist of Indian descent. Some have accused the series of “black erasure” for not featuring enough black women. At the Radio Times Festival last week, Pinto said that Asians were very much part of the black power movement, and she was “wholly unapologetic” for playing Jas. “Underneath every revolution, under every war, they’re not just numbers or colours,” she said. “They’re people with real human stories.”
Dhondy is living proof of the involvement of Asians in the black power movement. On the black erasure debate, he says, “I don’t understand because we are not the BBC, we don’t need to tick boxes. Ticking boxes on gender and race is not what John Ridley set out to do. He set out to capture a piece of history and it is completely legitimate that an Asian woman would be involved. Look, I was a leading male, I was a member of the central core for God’s sake, there were other Asians in the central core.”
Ridley, meanwhile, recently told the Observer: “Part of what we are saying is that a white person walking down the street at this time would look at them [Jas and Marcus] and say ‘Oh, those blacks’. To the outside world they’re both black but the reality is that they are a mixed-race couple.” Does that ring true to Dhondy? The idea that “black” was used as a blanket term to describe all people of colour? “Absolutely. We were extremely assertive of the fact that we were using the word black as a political colour, I don’t want to be known as anything else. It’s a political colour, it’s something we are using to distinguish ourselves from people who are not discriminated against.”
In terms of Guerrilla’s authenticity outside of that debate, the internal tensions of the movement depicted in the drama are very real. In Guerrilla, Jas is staunchly radical, and keen to use violence – while Marcus is not so sure. Dhondy says he had many tense conversations with his contemporaries over this. “There were lots of young hot heads in the movement who just wanted to use violence, and said: ‘Let’s imitate the IRA, let’s take some guns, let’s shoot a policeman’. We said: ‘No, no, no.’”
The Black Power Desk of the Metropolitan Police, too, very much existed. The men in this counter-intelligence force are depicted in the drama by Rory Kinnear and Daniel Mays, who play officers trained in Rhodesia and South Africa to brutally wipe out black activists. “The Black Power desk really attacked people in the very early days, in the 1970s,” says Dhondy. “They were instrumental in sending out the others to attack people. There were certainly files kept on all the activists.”
Other elements of the drama are clearly embellished, for example the use of guns and breaking people out of prison. “I always treated it as a welcome fiction,” says Dhondy. “Welcome because that history has to be told.”
Until recently, it has been a story too-often swept under the rug. Most of the cast of Guerrilla admitted they had heard about the US black power movement but not its equivalent here in Britain. From 1984-1997 Dhondy was a TV commissioner for Channel 4. He says he didn’t bring the story to the small screen because the black and minority ethnic writers simply weren’t there in the same way. “There were no writers at the time to do what John Ridley has done. There just weren’t.”
Guerrilla feels particularly poignant today. Just weeks ago, a teenage asylum seeker was brutally beaten by a gang in Croydon and Dhondy speaks of a “complete resurgence of white thuggery because of Brexit”. But despite the issues that persist in the UK, Dhondy says that the legacy of the black power movement is undeniable. “Just look around Britain today. The fact that Britain is an irreversibly multi-ethnic society, with no question of the repatriation of Black and Asian immigrants. That’s gone, right? No chance that they can discriminate, and the strength and the empowerment of black people to speak about this is a direct result of what was done in those early years in the 70s.
“We’ve forced Britain to get over this colonial hangover. It’s come back in this Brexit form, but I don’t think anyone would challenge my right to have a job, to drink in a pub, or challenge my children’s rights.”
Edited for mb3-org.com