Noughts + Crosses: Why You Should Watch This Afrofuturist Alternate History Romance

Don't believe the Peacock trailer. Noughts + Crosses is actually pretty good.

Noughts + Crosses on Peacock
Photo: Peacock

Long before writer Malorie Blackman conceived of the story of the Doctor and her companions meeting civil rights hero Rosa Parks in Doctor Who’s “Rosa,” she imagined another alternate version of history and racism. Noughts + Crosses, the BBC and Mammoth Screen-produced series based on Blackman’s bestselling U.K. YA book series of the same name, is making its U.S. debut on Peacock Friday, and it’s likely already on many a hardcore Whovian’s radar. However, for the rest of the American viewing public, this may be the first time you’re hearing of Noughts + Crosses. Or not. Last week, Peacock dropped a not-great U.S. trailer for the show, causing some controversy on social media, and alienating some of the audience most likely to watch this show. Here’s why Black viewers and science fiction dystopia fans should consider giving Noughts + Crosses a chance…  

What Is Noughts & Crosses?

First published in the UK in 2001, and in the U.S. in 2005, Noughts & Crosses tells the story of a dystopian alternate reality version of the U.K. (here, called Albion). In the Noughts & Crosses universe, people of African descent are called “Crosses” and people of European descent are called “Noughts.” The Crosses control the government and use the legal and economic system to oppress the Noughts. The main character of the novel series is Sephy Hadley (Masali Baduza, in the series), a Cross who is in a relationship with Callum McGregor (Jack Rowan), a Nought. Through this relationship, she begins to realize that the society she lives in is hell for those who don’t look like her. The story continues across five books, as the characters fight to end the institutionalized racism in Albion. 

As a long time follower of British television and a Carribbean-American wanting more Black representation, Noughts + Crosses first appeared on my radar almost two years ago after the first press release. It is incredibly rare to see adaptations of Black British writers on U.K. TV, and even rarer still to see Black talent both behind and in front of the camera. (Black writers Lydia Adetunji and Nathaniel Price and Black biracial writer Rachel De-lahay worked on the series, though the head writer was originally white writer Toby Whithouse, who ended up leaving before the end of the season because he wasn’t “clicking with the material,” according to Variety.) I quickly found the book series used online and was blown away by the complexity of the narrative. Afterwards, I wished I had been able to read the series as a kid or teenager because I would have found characters who mirrored me and could have helped me as I was struggling with my identity. I watched the U.K. airing of the Noughts + Crosses series online in March, and had an even more visceral reaction to the story after seeing the adaptation bring the characters to life. 

Blackman wrote the series at a time when white stories such as the Harry Potter series and other books dominated the YA market, both in the U.K. and in the U.S. With Noughts & Crosses, Millennial and Gen Z Black and POC British kids finally had heroes that looked like themselves. Later books in the series depict the struggle of growing up biracial in a society that refuses to accept your identity. Blackman’s novels outside of the series continued to depict Black kids and teens front and center in U.K. YA fiction. Although recent series The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner made dystopian YA fiction popular, these stories presented societies which were dominated by white European/American cultural aesthetics. Black characters in these stories, such as Rue from The Hunger Games, were often reduced to serving the plot points of white or white-coded characters. And, when the most popular of YA dystopia series got a big-screen adaptation, the few characters who were described as Black or POC in the books were often whitewashed by film casting.  

The show’s target audience in the U.K. was the now-adults or teenagers who read the books in school as kids or tweens. However, for whatever reason, the Noughts & Crosses books series never had the same popularity in the U.S., which means Peacock can’t bank on the same nostalgia or existing audience knowledge as the BBC could. Most prospective American audiences, including Black viewers and/or dystopian fiction fans who might like this series, are learning about Noughts + Crosses for the first time through Peacock’s marketing. This is a problem because the recently released Peacock trailer for Noughts + Crosses misrepresents the complexity of this series in some unfortunate ways.

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Breaking Down The Noughts + Crosses Peacock Trailer Reaction

Peacock dropped the the U.S. version of the Noughts + Crosses trailer last week, and it was picked up and promoted on Black media sites like Roc Nation. The promo immediately garnered criticism in a way that the U.K. promo, released earlier this year in the lead up to the series’ U.K. premiere back in March, did not. Although the Peacock trailer uses many of the same clips and stills as the UK trailer does, overall, it presents a much more plot-driven view of Noughts + Crosses, which doesn’t give justice to the series’ complex, Afrofuturist worldbuilding an thematic nuance.

Featuring more upbeat music than the U.K. trailer, and the title card “What if Africa colonized Europe?,” the U.S. trailer invited some to question why everyone was speaking English (instead of a fictional or existing African language). Others challenged the Eurocentric styling of the show. The overly-simplistic “What if Africa colonized Europe?” tagline caused hundreds of potential Black to express their displeasure with the promo, as many people believe African civilizations would not have replicated the cruelty of colonization and chattel slavery. While these critiques are valid and logical, and may be especially heightened concerns for anyone who is unfamiliar with the source material, some criticism actively questioned Blackman’s creative choices in ways that misunderstands her intention, which is to encourage readers and (eventually, with the TV adaptation) viewers to question learned and subconscious racial bias. 

Observing the negative reaction on social media over the Peacock trailer, there are parallels to the controversies over Netflix’s Les Mignonnes/Cuties. Both are pieces of visual media representing parts of the global Black Diaspora. Both suffered when U.S. networks created sensationalist promotional material and removed the cultural context necessary to ease questions and concerns from American audiences. Although viewers should definitely hold American studios accountable for distorting the work of Black creatives, at the same time, American audiences also cannot place unfair expectations on Black creatives from the international diaspora to reflect African-American culture in media that is primarily targeted towards representing their community of origin. The Black Diaspora is multi-faceted and global. Some creators choose to adapt their stories to Black American history and culture, others don’t, and that isn’t necessarily an expression of bias or ignorance. We don’t expect U.K. police procedurals on Amazon Prime to reflect American culture; we should view Black-centric genre stories like Noughts + Crosses through the same cross-cultural lens.  

Why You Should Give Noughts + Crosses a Chance

From the Peacock trailer, Noughts + Crosses may look like an uninspired and overly simplistic narrative exercise in racial role reversal, but, while this isn’t a perfect series, there is a lot to champion and appreciate about this series. Although the framing of Albion society might make viewers believe all of the Cross characters are villains and all the Noughts heroes, there is much more nuance to the plot. The series’ presentation of power dynamics blends the institutional and the personal. There are Cross characters complicit with the government and others who are trying to carve out their own way in life. While some eventually question their role in society, they never reject their Black culture. On the Nought side, Callum and the other Nought characters are fully fleshed out and defined by more than just their struggle. Their plot points are often used to facilitate discussions about cultural assimilation, micro-aggressions, and police brutality, but there are also events that flesh out character developments on other fronts. Classic YA literature themes, such as friendship, bullying, and family pressure, are just as important here as the plots dealing with radicalization and passive vs. active resistance of oppression. 

As the “+” in the show’s title might suggest, Sephy and Callum’s romance is at the heart of the series. Blackman called Noughts + Crosses “my version of Romeo and Juliet,” and most fans talk about how the Sephy/Callum relationship grows and how much they root for them to stay together throughout the series. During the U.K. airing, there were thousands of tweets about how soft and adorable Sephy and Callum are, a characterization that offsets some of the heavier themes in the show. Albion’s world, of course, brings complications that the average high school romance would never have to go through, but their relationship still has romantic escapist elements are so rarely represented on TV, especially in the form of interracial couples. 

Why Noughts + Crosses’ Worldbuilding Matters

At a time when Black audiences are demanding more cultural visibility across media—and the popularity of Afrofuturist media (e.g. stories that explore the intersection of African diaspora culture with technology) continues to grow—the Noughts + Crosses series breaks genre conventions by presenting a distinctly Afrofuturist dystopian society on mainstream television. Previous Afrofuturist works are often designed to create a utopian alternate reality where Black culture is presented in a prideful and optimistic fashion. Because of this, some may interpret an Afrofuturist dystopia as an insult to Black culture, but the point of science and dystopian fiction is to build new worlds while holding up a mirror to our own. Albion isn’t dystopian because of African-inspired culture; it is dystopian because of the government’s failure to treat all of its citizens equally. 

The world of Albion is at the heart of the mostly positive U.K. reviews for Noughts + Crosses. The series makes a conscious change from the books by using a more deliberate Afrofuturist approach to scenery and design. Albion in the books was described like modern London and surrounding areas. Blackman said in an interview for the BBC about these changes: “The celebration of African culture in myriad forms gives a different sensibility to what has been on TV before.” Noughts & Crosses was filmed in South Africa, and several cast members are from the country. One of the directors Koby Adom is also Black which is exceedingly rare for UK TV productions. Traditional fashions from the Xhosa and other tribal groups are melded to create an Afrofuturist landscape where the audience can feel in awe of the scenery. Braids, afros, dreads, and colorful headwraps complement dresses and suits adapted from various African cultures.

Past Afrofuturism, the airing of Noughts + Crosses on the BBC spotlighted Black British music, fashions, and experience were front and center on a network that is, more often than not, overwhelmingly white and where Black actors who are visible are often reduced to token roles that strip them of their cultural identities. (Rapper and activist Stormzy, whose music is featured in Doctor Who’s “Arachnids in the U.K.,” even appears as a guest star in one of the later episodes.) This visibility no doubt contributed to the success of the program in the UK.

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In July, the BBC announced after UK Black Lives Matter protests a pledge to spend £100 million ($132 million) on racially diverse programming. Noughts + Crosses which completed filming in 2019 is frequently cited in the press as an example for future U.K., which is one of the reasons Black British fans of the series (as well as international fans) are celebrating the show’s release in America: success here would bolster the chances of BBC greenlighting the adaptation of the second book in Blackman’s series, Knife Edge. In an effort to support the show, some U.K. fans even posted explainers to address the Peacock trailer controversy

Fans are understandably nervous that the U.S. trailer will keep American audiences, who already have a lot to watch on many different platforms, from giving the show a fair shot. As U.S. networks and streaming services are increasingly using U.K. shows to fill programming gaps in every genre, the success of Noughts + Crosses has the potential to influence future license deals for producing racially diverse and cutting edge television. And, as Blackman put it in an interview for the BBC. “What I would like to see are more comedies, thrillers, mysteries, love stories and whodunits that feature black characters in starring roles. There is room for everyone.”   

Most Americans, potentially aside from Doctor Who fans and a few Anglophiles such as myself, have no knowledge of Noughts & Crosses, or of Malorie Blackman. If Americans gave Noughts & Crosses a chance, they’re not only in for a dramatic, romantic ride, but are hopefully helping to pave the way for more Black creatives to tell fictional stories inspired by the Black diaspora on both U.K. and U.S. screens.