Despite some dubious changes, this BBC adaptation of Malorie Blackman's exploration of race and class is well worth watching, says Shabbir Lakha
With the Black Lives Matter protests spreading across the US and the globe and sparking renewed debate on the nature of racism, now’s a good time to watch the 6-part series Noughts + Crosses, the show based on the award-winning novel by Malorie Blackman.
Noughts + Crosses is set in an alternate reality where Britain is a place called Albion, black Crosses rule and white Noughts are severely oppressed. Albion is under the occupation of the Aprican Empire (the Noughts + Crosses version of Africa) which colonised it 700 years ago. Albion is a segregated society along the lines of Jim Crow America or Apartheid South Africa.
The story follows the inseparable lives of teenagers Persephone (Sephy) Hadley, the Cross daughter of the Home Secretary, and Callum McGregor, the Nought son of the Hadleys’ housekeeper. Sephy is an intelligent and independent young woman with plans of following her father’s footsteps in politics and somewhat naive to the society around her and her father’s views. Callum is poor and dreams of a better life which he knows is unattainable for a Nought.
The story uses the inverted, slightly extreme realities of Noughts + Crosses to highlight some fundamental truths about racism as it exists in our world today.
The first episode opens with a scene of a group of young Noughts being brutally attacked by the police which puts Callum’s best friend in the hospital with critical injuries. Nothing happens to the police officers of course and the papers report a story of Noughts attacking the police. Later in the series, Stormzy plays a Rupert Murdoch-like figure who boasts that his paper “dominates the homes and the minds of the nation”.
After witnessing the murder of George Floyd, we don’t need much effort to extrapolate the Noughts + Crosses reality to ours. For Sephy, hearing Callum’s side of the story causes her to question the official narrative of events which sets her on a journey to opening her eyes to the racism around her and her father’s political positions.
In Albion, Noughts are either domestic or casualised manual labourers or unemployed. They live in segregated ghettoes and don’t have access to proper healthcare or higher education. In one conversation, Sephy asks Callum if he’s thought about his future and he replies, “I’ve never really had to – we’re not exactly spoilt for choice”.
This is one of the more profound elements of the show, how it locates racism as rooted in the system. The reverse reality cuts through some of the ideas in our society of racism being primarily about a hatred of dark skin or something that is innate in white people.
It demonstrates that racism is a function of power more than individual ideas or relationships, and that even prejudiced ideas are driven down into society by those at the top as part of maintaining that power. Kamal Hadley, Sephy’s father and the Home Secretary, is right wing demagogue who uses his public speeches to say things like “there is strength in difference” and Sephy’s university lecturer teaches his students about how the Aprican Empire’s colonisation of Noughts was an act of mercy that saved them from their “own worst tendencies”. During a trial in which Callum and his father Ryan testify, the Crosses in the courtroom including the Judge is shocked to hear about the police brutality they’ve faced because they’ve never been exposed to that reality.
The show illustrates economic exploitation as part and parcel of the oppression faced by Noughts – which goes deeper than skin colour. There’s a scene where Ryan, a zero-hours construction worker, appeals to his Nought boss to let his colleague take a day off so he can attend his son’s funeral. When the boss refuses and suggests a non-Aprican funeral is blasphemous anyway, Ryan bewilderedly asks “what are you talking about? You’re one of us”, to which his boss says: “One of us? Which one of us has two cars? Which one of us has a conservatory? I’m a businessman.”
I also found that there is a distinct parallel that can be drawn between Albion, a segregated, highly militarised and violently racist society described as under occupation, and Palestine. And the show goes some way in both showing how resistance is generated and in humanising those who do. In Ryan’s court testimony, he powerfully says:
“You know what hurts us? More than the arrests, the searches and the beatings. When something like this [happens], people ask ‘why do they do this?’ You know why. You know what our lives are like. What you do to us. And now you feel anger towards me, I felt the same way when I heard about my son being stopped 300 times. Or when my cousin, beaten so badly by the police, he’s paralysed from the waist down, or when the girl I went to school with was raped by her Cross manager and then took her own life when she was told that no charges would be brought. Every Nought in here, they won’t have one of those stories, they’ll have twenty.”
Some of the weaknesses
Despite being a generally good depiction of how racism works and using a reverse reality to bust stereotypes, there are some flaws in the narrative. There are repeated references to the idea that in Aprica itself there is greater equality between Noughts and Crosses and Albion is somehow rogue. We are also presented with a benevolent and well meaning Prime Minister who wants to launch an inquiry into police brutality and strive to create more equality for Noughts – which somehow stands apart from the structural racism the rest of the show illustrates.
It’s a bit obvious to say that the book is better than the show, but some of the quite fundamental changes to the storyline definitely weaken the show. For example, in the show Callum joins the military school, ironically named Mercy Point, as part of a first cohort of Noughts that are allowed to join. He believes it is a way that he can make a change and he’s reluctantly ok with being deployed to police the Nought equivalent of the Notting Hill Carnival.
In the book, Callum and Sephy are younger and it’s a Cross secondary school that Callum is able to join when they first start have to accept Noughts. Callum and several Noughts’ first day going to school, surrounded and attacked by Cross protesters and police supporting the protesters not the children was a depiction of what happened to the Little Rock Nine in 1957 Arkansas. The anger that Jude feels that his brother is able to go to school while he couldn’t because his parents couldn’t afford it, goes some way to explaining his visceral, racialised hatred for Crosses and how poverty creates the desperation that fuels some of his later actions – something that is lacking in the show.
There is also the portrayal of the Liberation Militia, which in the show is a small group of individuals in a cult-like organisation led by a blood-thirsty man who will happily kill a Nought and blame it on Crosses to try and anger other Noughts into action. In the book, the Liberation Militia is actually a highly organised and relatively large militia that organises among Nought communities and attempts to strategically weaken the state (rightly or wrongly).
So, I would very much recommend watching Noughts + Crosses while it’s still on iPlayer, and also reading Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses book, the first in a series which will soon have a sixth book.
Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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