A review of the dystopian television series Noughts and Crosses that gives viewers a different lens to view racism and identity.

For all those who loved Black Panther and are honorary Wakanda citizens in their hearts, the hit television series, Noughts and Crosses, might be something you want to add to your watchlist.      

Set in the present day, there is an African empire that colonised the whole of Europe seven hundred years ago and after the First World War, control of Europe was split between different African factions… sounds familiar right? Albion, comprising of Great Britain and Ireland, is a self-governing colony with its own female prime minister and executive leadership where black Africans (Crosses) are the ruling class and white colonised natives (Noughts) are second-class citizens.     

The series is an adaptation of the young adult book series, Noughts and Crosses, written by British author, Malorie Blackman. Published in 2001, Blackman initially wrote the book with the intention of writing stories black children could see themselves in. Blackman has been known to use science fiction to explore social and ethical issues in society. The television series, produced almost 20 years after the release of the first book, is no different.      

Released in March 2020, the series has a diverse cast, some from South Africa and others from the United Kingdom. Masali Baduza, the lead actress who plays Persephone ‘Sephy’ Headly, was born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa. Another Saffer in the series is award-winning actress, Bonnie Mdluli, who plays Baduza’s mother Jasmine Headly.  Lead actor, Callum McGregor, is played by Jack Rowan who is known from UK drama series Peaky Blinders where he made a dramatic exit in the middle of the fifth season after being cast for Noughts and Crosses.

The storyline, described by Blackman, was meant to be her version of Romeo and Juliet.  It was a story of star-crossed lovers, powerless in the face of a society that cannot see past colour. Sephy is the daughter of Home Secretary, Kamal Headly, (played by Paterson Joseph), a power-hungry man who is a staunch Cross and believes that “there is strength in difference.” She and poor Nought boy Callum fall in love and have to manoeuvre a secret relationship under the thumb of the Albion colony and the complications that come with that. 

I must admit that the danger of Sephy and Callum’s relationship is not as urgent as it should have been. Their romance developed quite quickly and despite their secret hiding spots and sneaking into underground clubs, there is no palpable intimacy that convinces the viewer that they are dangerously in love and ready to risk it all to be together. I suppose one could say that it is more realistic as both Sephy and Callum have to ask themselves who they are, what they identify with and what risk their relationship poses to them in a society built on segregation.

In the midst of their blooming love affair, the resistance, called the Liberation Militia run by the Noughts, is gaining traction and growing more violent and daring with every passing day. The societal turbulence intensifies after each episode and one can feel the revolution edging closer. The female prime minister (played by Rakie Ayola) added a nice touch. Seeing a black woman command men and women alike and stand her ground in the midst of societal unrest was uplifting to see. Despite the men around her plotting her fall, she was still effective and led with compassion and pure intentions. 

Every actor was strong and memorable in their own right, each complimenting the other and adding depth to the story. Those that stood out for me would have to be Jasmine and Kamal Headly. Initially, they are enigmas to the audience and look perfect to the outside world whilst behind closed doors, their marriage is falling apart and they are complete strangers to each other and their children. On the surface we can see they have an unhappy marriage, Kamal is a workaholic and Jasmine is self-medicating to cope with the loneliness she feels from her absent husband – making her an absent mother. 

As the story continues, we learn more about these complex characters, how Kamal is against integration efforts in Albion and Jasmine begins to discover her worth outside of her marriage. This is poignant because Jasmine had let her marriage define her and her relationships with her two daughters because she did not feel worthy but as soon she decided to love herself, she found strength and peace. 

The beauty of the series, despite its love-story focus, is the way everyone else around Sephy and Callum are going through real-life problems. Black characters are given substantial backstories that don’t directly link to their race, a phenomenon we still don’t see enough of in our society.  The importance of representation on a global scale is unquestionable. In the past decade, the Western entertainment industry has preached ‘more inclusivity, more diversity’ yet people of colour are simultaneously told to conform to Western standards to fit in. Having a black face in your cast is one step, but letting that face become a real person with attributes and characteristics that are a true reflection of the world they live in and who they are, that’s power. 

From what I’ve seen, the writers didn’t want to focus solely on Sephy and Callum’s love story, but rather the context in which they are living in. It also focuses on the social practices and ideologies that govern their lives – a mere reflection of the reality many have had to live within and are still living under.

Josh Lee, a journalist from The Guardian said, “The series is full of allusions to the specific realities of being a racialized minority”. The blunder of an ‘exotic’ name being casually brushed off or the sight of a brown plaster being put on pink skin are two of the things that marked the reversal of power so clearly for me. One is reminded of the way people of colour have been raised in a society that was never truly designed to accommodate them. Nevertheless our ancestors fought their way through and rightfully occupied the space that was owed to them as equals in society and we are still fighting. 

This series felt very personal, I’d find myself surprised at the stature and  richness the Crosses were flaunting – from their dresses, their hairstyles, to their houses and cars – they were all proudly African  and undiluted by Western standards because that was the status-quo. 

In an interview with the BBC, Mdluli commented on what it was like to work on a set that was fully embracing and uplifting the culture and heritage of Africans, “It is quite a feeling to walk onto set and feel seen as a person, feel like your hair and the way you wear it or the way people in their world wear their clot

hes…is being given a platform. It is shocking. Then you realise that you have spent your whole life without it,” she said.

None of the abuses the Noughts undergo are far-fetched or dramatised. They are true depictions of mistreatment and exploitation that people of colour, in South Africa and around the world, have been suffering for years.

If you don’t watch the series for the storyline, watch it for the lessons and the echoes of a reality that shouldn’t be persisting in our world anymore. It depicts white privilege in a different fashion and reminds us that we should not define ourselves by nothing more than who we are.

FEATURED IMAGE: Noughts and Crosses, a dystopian series that tackles white privilege in a new way and acknowledges African culture and heritage on a global scale. Photo: BBC One