Reading Malorie Blackman’s multi-award winning novel Noughts and Crosses during my last years of primary school was an eye-opening experience about the extent of racism in our society, and my position of privilege in the world. My interest was piqued when I heard that the BBC was creating a TV adaptation. With the current political climate, the open (and horrific) examples of police brutality internationally, and increased instances of racism at our university, now was seemingly the time for this series to be adapted. On a trip home from university I binge-watched the entire series in one day and found myself being shaken again by this story.
The BBC adaptation does a great job of showcasing black talent, introducing Masali Baduza in her first major role as Sephy, as well as celebrating African culture through traditional dress, Yoruba language, and even showing white characters with permed or braided hair to subscribe to the beauty standards of Aprica. However, in a world where an understanding of racial inequalities has become far more visible and widely discussed, how relevant is the heavy-handed role reversal of Noughts and Crosses today?
Written for young adults, Blackman’s series is inevitably steeped in the somewhat gimmicky YA dystopian genre of the 2000s, and I found that some of these characteristics (the clumsily renamed Aprica etc.) dated the television series and prevented my full immersion into this world. Of course, the discomfort of the Noughts and Crosses world largely results from the difficult to swallow racial inequality, and the increased emphasis on institutional racism within educational and judicial environments brings this discussion into the present day profoundly. The depiction of police searches, brutality and corruption is very difficult to watch. The violence against the “noughts” evokes the horrifying realities of police violence against black people such as Trayvon Martin and Atatiana Jefferson, bringing viewers face to face with the victims and the perpetrators of such attacks. However, the shocking familiarity of these inequalities goes further than the aggressive oppression of the police. Sephy’s naivety surrounding her own privilege taints her kindness throughout the series, and her mother’s attempts to reach out are also resented by the “nought” characters. The intricacies of these interracial relationships help to explore the internalised prejudices of both the “noughts” and the “crosses”, exploring the personal effects of racism upon both races. By slowly deconstructing the divisions between the two families, the series allows for emotionally equal relationships to be forged.
However, while the series has emotional depth and explores the subtle daily struggles faced by a young interracial couple, some of the changes it makes seem to lessen its relevance to current issues. A particular change that seems misplaced is the introduction of the Mercy Point military school — an environment so far removed from the mainstream education system that it feels unnecessary. By removing Callum (Jack Rowan) from the school environment that his “cross” partner Sephy attends, the difficulties faced by their social differences in a shared environment are neglected, and their relationship seemed rushed and underdeveloped.
In a society where racial discrimination is now more nuanced and insidious, the series’ allusions to apartheid and the Jim Crow laws seem to misdirect the focus from current racial debates. Equally, by targeting the series to an adult audience, the story finds itself caught in a limbo between the teen-focused book and the more mature television series. It appears, to me, that this poignant yet simplified dystopian story should remain in the teenage realm. If the TV series was clearly targeted towards a young teen audience, then the attempt to impart lessons of this nature upon a new generation would have been appropriate. Instead, the 9pm programming time cements its implied adult audience (perhaps attempting to entice the original readers of this early 2000s book series). Fortunately, like this audience, the public discussion of racism has changed since 2001, especially with the rise of social media taking people rightly to task for their indiscretions. Because of this, Blackman’s story misses the mark, and while the adaptation has clearly considered some of the changes currently taking place in the current political climate, this story seems to be far too “black and white” at this complicated juncture.
– Hollie Piff