Real experiences and real pain

Nick Wood watches Noughts + Crosses.

Noughts + Crosses has taken 20 years to transition from book to screen, and never has its message felt more timely; Coronavirus, or no Coronavirus. I did make the mistake of watching the first episode with my partner of over 30 years, however, having read Malorie Blackman’s novel when it was first published in 2001.

After all, how much more relevant could the topic of Noughts + Crosses be for us – growing up during apartheid South Africa, but on opposite sides of the railway tracks? The central premise of Noughts + Crosses is a classic apartheid inversion in an altered, but contemporary Britain – following an alternative history where African people have colonised the UK (called Albion) and Europe, rather than following the whitewashed British Empire narrative, currently taught as history. The ‘Noughts’ are the subjugated white dominant British majority; the ‘Crosses’, the black African conquering elite.

The opening image of London, dominated by a massive statue of an African woman bestriding the landscape, is an arresting and powerful one, and the visual and aural richness of the show is stunning – lush with African colour and sounds, with a fantastic soundtrack, evocatively covering a broad range of the continent’s wonderful music traditions. The main plot conceit – a Romeo and Juliet type forbidden (and conflictual) ‘cross race’ relationship between Callum (a ‘Nought’) and Sephy (daughter of the Home Secretary, a ‘Cross’) is the heart of the narrative engine, that feeds into the wider ongoing story around attempts by the white Liberation Militia (LM) to ‘decolonise’ their country.

Noughts + Crosses is beautifully acted, to bolster its high production values, with outstanding performances particularly from Paterson Joseph as Home Secretary (and Sephy’s baba/father) and Helen Baxendale as housekeeper (and Callum’s mother). Although the race-inverted premise may feel clunky to some, it’s full of subtle and clever communicative interactions, highlighting colonialism and ‘micro-aggressions’ and misinterpretations, based on the experiential chasms between the major characters. The plotting felt a little stilted on occasion – it’s hard to fit such a dense book into six packed episodes – but it carries a hefty punch.

At the end of the first episode, I turned to my partner: ‘Interesting, wasn’t it?’ Her face, however, was contorted in pain: ‘That’s – that’s been my life for many years.’ It hit me then. This programme (and book) is based on real experiences, real pain. My partner felt ill, with what bordered on PTSD. This story is, at heart, a live and visceral one, for many people within Brexit Britain right now, with a rampaging virus that will only further the Othering of many others. Noughts + Crosses is a powerful account of what racism looks and feels like, and is highly relevant for our professions as psychologists, where we often unwittingly diminish people’s stories as ‘interesting’ or even ‘boring and tiresome’.

I too, am guilty as charged. But, given my white privilege, I was at least able to watch the whole series. Given her own and separate history, my partner could not manage more than the first episode.

History matters. History lives. Watch it. 

- Reviewed by Nick Wood, clinical psychologist and writer

Watch Noughts + Crosses now on iPlayer.

See also:
Shameema Yousuf on structural racism in sport and sport psychology
Dr Kimberly Sham Ku and Dr Abdullah Mia on a culture of silence and denial

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