Noughts and Crosses presents privilege in a way that can't be ignored

Noughts and Crosses is a pivotal lesson for everyone, regardless of race, about privilege and the harmful effects of oppression.

Based on Malorie Blackman’s 2001 novel of the same name, the series is set in an alternate universe where black people, known as Crosses, rule over an underclass of white people called Noughts.

Noughts clash with the police, are painted as thugs, seen as second class citizens, and have racist slurs hurled at them, which will sound incredibly familiar to a lot of people.

What this drama does well is lay bare everyday experience of people of colour in a way that white people can’t ignore. Firstly because it’s so entertaining, and secondly the show can’t be accused of ‘ramming a PC agenda down our throats’ or ‘preaching’ as columnists and daytime TV broadcasters might argue.

It presents black people’s experiences in a subtle and involving way. Callum’s mum Meggie (Helen Baxendale) clearly has a perm; white people wear braids while training at Mercy Point. This is a universe where African beauty ideals are the standard, and so the white inhabitants of Albion attempt to acclimatise. This is a reality for many black people, as we still continue to read about black students being told their hair isn’t suitable for school.

One scene depicts Sephy (Masali Baduza), a Cross, putting a plaster on Callum (Jack Rowan), a Nought, after he cuts his finger. The shot lingers on the dark brown plaster around Callum’s finger, and it drew appreciative applause at the show’s premiere in Brixton this week.

When Sephy puts the patch on Callum, she thinks nothing of it, how it looks against his skin. Similarly in reality, it’s something so small that might not occur to white people, but to people of colour it is significant after eons of wearing pink plasters. Meanwhile Tesco introduced plasters in a variety of tones just this February.

But it is also explores the impact of oppression on those who experience it.

Star Josh Dylan told that he felt it was too simplistic to write off his character Jude, Callum’s brother, as racist.

‘You see the home they come from, these boys, you see his brother and parents and it’s a loving family,’ he said.

‘I still don’t know exactly what motivates him, but I think it’s just that sense of injustice.

‘I’d love it if people were able to see a relatable person and empathise, instead of just going he’s a psychopath and he’s f*****g angry all the time.

‘It’s what happens when people are put under pressure and the environment around them is just chucking stuff at them.’

The key thing is the ‘environment’ ‘chucking stuff’ at the Noughts – police brutality, unemployment, inequality, dehumanising treatment – that perhaps prompts Jude’s need to side with Jack Dorn (Shaun Dingwall) and his movement, no matter how unsavoury it might seem to others. Anyone who followed, or maybe were involved in, the London riots in 2011 can probably attest to that too.

It’s not likely that Noughts and Crosses’ message will make a permanent impact on the wider world. In fact one production meeting some time ago asked Blackman to make the black characters Asian to ‘reach a bigger audience’. But if the people who tune in do so with an open mind, then tell others about it, who then tell others (who then pick up Blackman’s book) it might be a significant step towards us all understanding each other.

Noughts and Crosses airs Thursdays at 9pm on BBC One.

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