Give me the same thing – but different! That’s the battle-cry of every producer in Hollywoood. Well, Noughts and Crosses is different, all right, and it’s the same. It’s the age-old story of star-crossed lovers – Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, A Suitable Boy and thousands of others, but different how? Well, if you want a snapshot, imagine apartheid South Africa – but in reverse.
What makes the story different from a thousand others is that Blackman flips the racial dynamic. In this society black people (Crosses) are the ruling elite and whites (Noughts or ‘Blankoes’) are the underclass. It’s such a simple thing – and yet it changes everything.
As we watched the first episode last night I was surprised by how much mental adjustment was needed. In one sense it’s a simple premise: black is white and white is black – but in another sense every cliche has to be rewritten, every relationship flipped on its head, every assumption questioned. When you see a powerful black guy treat white servants with disdain it brings you up short and you have to keep reminding yourself: this is how things are here.
Into this dystopian world enter our heroes: Callum – more ambitious than his passive father, more purposeful than his angry brother – an ambitious Nought who is about to join the first, ‘experimental’ intake into an elite military academy. And Sephy, daughter of one of the first families in the state; more caring than her politician father, more serious than her idle, narcissistic sister. Callum and Sephy are on the point of becoming lovers but when a friend of Callum’s, made comatose by police, is killed in hospital by an agent provocateur, it’s all about to kick off.
There’s a curious mixture of the liberating and the oppressive in this series. In some ways it’s good to see African culture celebrated and respected, but it’s at the expense of the Noughts who get the worst of everything: you cannot help, as a white viewer, putting yourself into the position of the Noughts. But there’s far more than a simple ‘see what it feels like’ dynamic to this story; at its heart it’s a drama of two people trying to find love and transcend hatred.
I can’t wait for the next episode.