warning: this review contains spoilers.
When I learned that the BBC was airing the first ever television adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s award-winning teen novel, Noughts and Crosses, I was instantly intrigued. How would Blackman’s vision of an alternately racialised society play out on the small screen in 2020?
The speculative fiction novel (first of a series), published in 2001, follows a teenage friendship – later romance – between Callum, a member of the Nought (light-skinned) oppressed underclass, and Sephy, a member of the Cross (dark-skinned) ruling class. The adaptation is more adult, dramatic and violent – it also contains several new plot points.
Whilst the novel invokes an American context of post-slavery segregation, the adaptation is set in an alternative London in the colony of Albion, inhabited by indigenous Noughts and the settler colonial class, the Crosses. The adaptation brings to life the faintly mapped world of Blackman’s novel with ingenious details signifying, from the outset, the privileging of African (‘Aprican’/Cross) culture over English (Nought) culture. These details include aesthetics (such as the African prints and headdresses worn by both Noughts and Crosses on special occasions, and the African hairstyles imposed on Nought soldiers, although their uniforms are more reminiscent of post-colonial African armies) and linguistic details (both protagonists address their parents as ‘Mama’ and ‘Baba’; many characters drop occasional Yoruba phrases into conversation). Nought culture (i.e. stereotypically ‘white’ culture) is seen as inferior to Cross culture, as demonstrated by the Crosses’ frequent remarks on Noughts’ heavy drinking. Interestingly, the media portrayal of Noughts also includes elements of real-life portrayals of South Asians (for example, frequent use of the word ‘terrorist’). It’s interesting to point out, however, that as in the novel there is no representation of Asians or other ethnic groups (apart from the fleeting appearance of a legal advisor named Ananya, the first television namesake of mine I’ve seen!)
White people adopting elements of BAME cultures is seen as cringeworthy at best, or as harmful appropriation at worst in real life.
As effective as these details may be, the inverted racial dynamic has its limitations. Whilst the series focuses on an interracial romantic relationship, the fear of female sexuality and desire for the ‘other’ which is often felt by privileged families in patriarchal societies, is not fully captured. Callum is despised by Cross men with authority – that are also, of course, connected to Sephy, including her father (the Home Secretary; later Prime Minister) and her initial boyfriend, a senior officer in a famous military academy. Interestingly enough, however, Callum is not seen as a threat to the extent that one might expect within a rigidly racialised and class-ridden society. Whilst interracial relationships are in fact illegal, Sephy’s freedom is not broadly restricted on the grounds of her potential attraction to Nought men (although her father does succeed in briefly halting her relationship with Callum).
There are, indeed, fleeting moments when viewers may forget that whiteness and blackness have a different symbiotic relationship in this inversely racialised world. In one scene, contemplating escaping to the colonial metropolis Aprica, Callum makes a self-deprecating joke to Sephy about wearing a Dashiki; her cringing laughter could easily be a reaction to a young white man making a similar joke in real life. White people adopting elements of BAME cultures is seen as cringeworthy at best, or as harmful appropriation at worst in real life. The series thus raises the question of whether this would still be the case (and not the reverse), were white culture socially marginalised, and whether these complex racial dynamics can be communicably translated into an inversely racialised society.
Politically, the series makes explicit the novel’s implicit anti-left stance. There is no visible leader or movement for equal rights (like the US Civil Rights Movement), let alone a revolutionary or socialist movement (like the Black Panthers), aside from the Liberation Militia (LM). This movement, led by Jack Dorn, is entirely discredited right from the first episode, when he opportunistically murders a Nought teenager to stir up already simmering racial tensions. This is, quite clearly, a hugely problematic representation of liberation activists.
Against this backdrop, the series, particularly this scene, raises two questions: is discomfort with such a display of white nationalism inevitable for contemporary viewers, being currently inseparable from real-life connotations? And if so, was this invocation intentional?
In the final episode, face-to-face with Prime Minister Kamal Hadley, Dorn declares, ‘It’s time to take our country back.’ Whilst absorbed in the series’ alternate world, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable at the sight of a white man spouting this nationalism to a black man’s face, telling him his people must leave the land. Hadley’s senior position would not make him immune to racism in real life; I was reminded of the vitriolic hate mail BAME politicians face regularly, at the intersection of increasing hate crimes and abuse of politicians since the Brexit vote. Against this backdrop, the series, particularly this scene, raises two questions: is discomfort with such a display of white nationalism inevitable for contemporary viewers, being currently inseparable from real-life connotations? And if so, was this invocation intentional?
Like the novel, the series is highly gendered, with women largely confined to the political sidelines while men take centre stage. One cinematic illustration of this divide sees Callum’s mother and Sephy watch in horrified confusion as Callum and his brother Jude speed away on a mystery mission with the LM. By urging the men to take less extreme lines, women characters ultimately succeed in shifting the narrative to a predictable, ‘love-trumps-hate’ formula which undermines organised resistance. Sephy thus steers both her father and Callum away from their opposite political positions towards a liberal, forgiving centre, by revealing her pregnancy with Callum’s child. Women are the bearers of new life: the only viable hope the series offers. Unlike the novel, the series does not mention the possibility of an abortion; Sephy’s unquestioning acceptance of this unplanned pregnancy and the implied lack of an alternative underlines this essentialised view of women’s roles.
Ultimately, as limited as the series’ politics may be, it has a vital function: to expose and challenge the blind spot of the UK establishment and general public around structural racism, as ironically demonstrated by the BBC’s description of the series as set in ‘dystopian London’. Hopefully, white viewers will be enlightened about the real-life experiences of Black people in racialised and colonial societies across the globe, rather than simply seeing these experiences as ‘dystopian’ when they happen to white people.
Featured image: BBC Creative (fair use)
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