‘Noughts and Crosses’ Might Be a Challenging Take on Race, but Paterson Joseph Says It’s Universal

     September 17, 2020

noughts-and-crosses-paterson-joseph-sliceWhen I spoke with veteran British actor Paterson Joseph across two subsequent early mornings (for me, that is — it was late afternoon for him), we began with him asking me questions. Specifically, he wanted to know about Collider, and its audience, and whether or not I had a sense that American audiences were tuning into Noughts and Crosses, the BBC series based on books by Malorie Blackman, which had just made its debut on Peacock.

As the first (and perhaps only) American journalist Joseph was talking to about the show, I was disappointed to not be able to give the Timeless and The Leftovers star a great answer. But the rest of our conversation confirmed that those other American journalists were missing out by not speaking with him, as we dug into his thoughts on the series, set in an alternate universe where centuries ago, what we call Britain was colonized by Black people, leading to a 21st century where the racial balance has been completely flipped, and a London where Home Secretary Kamal Hadley (Joseph) is one of the most powerful men in the country, unaware that his daughter Sephy (Masali Baduza) has formed an intense star-crossed connection with “Nought” (meaning white) Callum (Jack Rowan).

It is not surprisingly a premise that’s attracted some controversy, as it challenges the viewer to examine all of their preconceptions about race — whether they’re American or British. Joseph, who is currently shooting a BBC One drama called Vigil under quarantine conditions, explains below how the show might be British in origin but is quite universal, and what he hopes the show continues to explore in a second season.

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Image via Peacock

Collider: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you about this show is that I feel like when I was watching it as an American, I was constantly reminding myself that America’s history with race is pretty different from Britain’s history with race. It’s probably equally fucked up, but the actual history is different. So as soon as I started reminding myself that we’re talking about colonialism here, it started clicking for me a lot more clearly.

JOSEPH: That’s interesting. I’m fascinated by this, obviously, because I write about, by default, Black history, but really about a character who is called Charles Ignatius Sancho. I do a one-man show, it actually opened at the Kennedy Center in about 2016 and toured America with it, and I did Q&As after each show. And what I was finding, even these expert Black historians, they’d be asking me things like, “So are there other Black people in England?” “Did England have slavery?” So I mean, we all say this as a cliche but you Americans, vast though your country is, full of everybody from all over the world, that you are, you’re all, all of you, and I don’t just mean white people, and I don’t just mean Black people, all of you are in a bubble, and have always been in a bubble for so many years, that when you talk about other people in other countries, you go, “You guys had that too?”

I mean, I literally had people saying, “Was there slavery?” So, that means you didn’t understand that the foundations of your nation is England. That slavery was in the Caribbean, which is only down the road, in the Caribbean sea, it’s only off the coast of Florida. The biggest slave enclave was in Brazil and it’s like, “Well, did you not know that there were Black people all over Europe? In the Arabian peninsula, and in Russia, and in the Northern hemisphere? How are you taught your history?” People who are interested in history, that you don’t know the foundations of your own nation.

It worried me because I thought, “No wonder we misunderstand each other, because you don’t know your stories.” We don’t know our stories here, by the way. I’m not saying it’s just in America. But at least we know that there are Black Americans. We know that. We’ve seen Obama. You guys don’t know anything about what we… We might as well not have existed. And we’ve done quite a lot of stuff. Have you ever heard of reggae? [laughs] There’s blindness for everybody, We all have it. But, I think Noughts and Crosses is about slavery. It’s about the end of colonialism, a kind of slavery, and the beginning of a sort of Jim Crow era. So our equivalent in Noughts and Crosses is really Jim Crow America.

What we’re seeing in Noughts and Crosses is an extreme version of what would happen if a minority Black elite was undermining, in an apartheid sense, the majority-white oppressed class. But the truth’s in it. The fact that you get followed around in the shop. The fact that there are no real white politicians with any power. The fact that a lot of businesses are owned by white people, although they’re selling Black products.

People are sensitive. They see [the show] and a lot of people just don’t want to look at it because it’s too much. I know that’s not how it is. We’re not asking you to believe that it’s how it is. It’s a fantasy. But what Malorie is trying to do is calibrate your vision so that you can see what it would be like to be an oppressed minority and what it would be like to be an oppressed people, where you have no reins of power.

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Image via Peacock

And there are so many great details that communicate this quietly. I think one thing that really stuck out for me was the fact that when the young white candidates are in military service, they have their hair styled in an African style. And that’s a huge issue given that in the American military’s uniform dress code, there were at one point regulations basically saying a Black woman couldn’t wear her hair in braids.

JOSEPH: Yes, that’s right. That was rescinded, I believe. [Editor’s note: In 2014.]

Yes. But it was still what came to mind when seeing the Nought soldiers in uniform — because the dominant group would dictate things like hairstyle.

JOSEPH: Yes. But it also naturally happens if one wants to fit in, because you see the people who have success and power, they look like that, they don’t look like you. Their hair isn’t like yours, they’re like that. So you get as close to that as you possibly can. And that’s a proper, horrible mindset. It’s almost like you’re hypnotizing yourself into believing that is a good thing, to strip yourself of your culture, in order to fit in. And they too, the people who are asking by default, that you do that also think it’s very acceptable and are offended when you go against that and become quote, unquote ethnic.

I mean, ethnic is a meaningless term because everybody thinks it means brown or something, but actually, we’re all ethnic. But the specific ethnic look, this is something that’s accepted. You’re more accepted if you look like… I mean, I shave my head so I can’t really get involved in that. But if I had my hair nicely, short back and sides, that’s much more acceptable than dreadlocks. Even though I’m the same person, culturally you’re offending me slightly, or I feel uncomfortable because you’re giving me your culture.

Now, that’s a very strange thing to think. But when you see it, when white people are doing it, I think it starkly shows you what we face on a daily basis. You’re different, you’re different. Oh but you’re trying to conform so you’re safe. Or you’re really not trying to conform, you may not be safe. I think if people sit down and allow themselves to get into it, they really will learn a hell of a lot. And I love the little comedy things that the show has. It’s funny but bitterly funny. Callum cuts his finger and goes to get a flesh-colored [banaid], but it’s Black.

It’s very true. I watch a lot of genre TV, and so I usually have no trouble tracking alternate universes, but this was one of the more challenging shows I’ve ever watched, because it does really challenge you to remember the premise as a fundamental part of the characters’ daily lives.

JOSEPH: Yeah. And I don’t know about you, but a lot of people here have been talking about the struggle that they had with it. It’s almost as if it’s easiest to reject this idea or even see it. Much easier to reject it than to actually engage in it and go, I begin to see how that might feel. If you go into a space that you think is public, but actually it is public for certain people. You are a bit suspicious — so we might follow you around a little bit more because you’re white. That’s a really good thing to write because that happens to all of us, every day. Every day. We, literally, just go, This is our… “Oh, we going to get followed by the…” Oh, there’s the security guard again. Okay. I’ll just pick up my peanuts here and I’ll get some avocados and he’s still there. Okay.”

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Image via Peacock

Some people I know are a bit more vociferous and they go, “Can I help you? or they’ll say, “I’ve got a wallet and there’s money in it.” And of course, that embarrasses the security guard because they haven’t even thought that they were profiling you. They’re just doing what they do naturally. You know? So it’s a subtle but painful series, if you think about it. And it’s a great love story in the middle of it. After all that, after having said all that, it’s a beautiful, beautiful love story across the ethnic divide with beautiful Masali Baduza and Jack Rowan, who are just gorgeous. Ah God, your heart breaks for them, you know? Because they’re so innocent and they’re so hopeful and they really should succeed, because why shouldn’t they succeed? Well, they shouldn’t because of all this nonsense and [my character is] part of that whole nonsense. But that is the monolith that they’re against, and hopefully, we get a second season and they can investigate it.

As an American, I didn’t really have a great perception of how the show was received by British audiences, so I was looking up reviews, and I stumbled across this blog post that was critical of the show. I was reading it to see if they had any honest points they wanted to make, and then the person behind this blog post wrote, “Racism is absent from our society…” And I was like, well, I now can’t take this person seriously at all.

JOSEPH: Welcome to Britain in 2020. Welcome to Britain in 2020. When we march for Black Lives Matters here, the next day the far-right marches. And obviously, the way the police treats both communities, one being quite violent actually, the white supremacists, and the others just trying to work peacefully. They’re not rioting. They’re not doing anything. They’re treated very differently. This is the story that I’ve grown up with in this country, Black protest is always seen as violent. In fact, Black celebration is always seen as potentially violent. Our Notting Hill carnival, which is the biggest street carnival in the world, is always seen beforehand as some sort of fearful thing where it’s all going to be crime and nothing else.

Given the statistics, it is not played out in the way that they want it. So the country has this dichotomous idea that there are people who say, “I am not racist. Therefore, no one is. I am never aware of any racism.” This is white people. “And so therefore it must not exist.” Which when you think about that kind of weird sophistry is more insidious than people getting on the streets with guns and saying, “We’re going to protect our property from these Black Lives Matters socialists.”

So what we deal with is language, and the idea of who belongs here. And our story is not as spectacular as the American story, because we’re not as big a community, but it is insidious, and it is just as undermining to people who have an ethnicity that is not Caucasian. So this is the battle that we face. It’s subtle, but it’s very, very powerful and it’s monolithic.

It’s fascinating to hear you talk about it just because it makes it even more impactful that Noughts and Crosses was originally produced by the BBC.

JOSEPH: Yeah. But you know, Noughts and Crosses is a 20-year-old novel. And it’s very popular, particularly with young people, because it’s a young adult novel. Why did it take 20 years for the BBC to be brave enough to put the show out? Even though they knew it would be popular, they were avoiding controversy, clearly. And I suppose, times being what they are led them to think, “Oh, this is quite safe.”

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Image via Peacock

Little did they know what was coming. [Editor’s note: The series premiered in the UK last February, before the global rise of Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020.] And so, it was proved more controversial, I’m sure, than they ever imagined. Thankfully it was that way round. I’m sure if Black Lives Matter had happened [before], they may well have run away from it as an incendiary story. And it’s no surprise that there are people who, on one side saying, “No, this is not how it is. This not as bad as that.” And the other people saying, “No, it’s not as bad as that, but actually there’s a lot in there that is true. And I have never seen anything about Black life in Britain that has told me more about what it is to be othered than this show.” So it’s won hearts, and it’s put backs up, but those backs will always be up if anybody ever mentions parity, or white supremacy, or the oppression of Black people.

Absolutely. A slight tangent, on the question of cinematography — you’ve worked in a lot of different realms, on a lot of different projects. How aware are you when it comes to making sure you’re being lit in a way where you’re going to be able to be seen properly on screen?

JOSEPH: I just was explaining to a couple of actors, one of Indian descent, and the other of mixed Scottish descent, who were working on [Virgil] and we were talking about lighting and I happened to say to one of the lighting guys, “Oh, I love this little orange light.” We were working on a submarine, and there’s a flashing light because there’s an emergency, and it’s orange. And I said, “I really love the fact that you put that light over my head giving me…” He said, “Ah, no, I’m taking care of you.”

They were curious, these younger actors, as to why I spoke about that. So I explained that when I started in 1989, directors of photography didn’t know anything about Black skin because they’d never had to deal with it. If Black people were in anything, they were in the background or the peripheral characters, they didn’t really bother doing much with them. When they did have to have me standing next to a white actor, they would always look at me as if I was the problem object. And they would be hemming, and hawing, and scratching of chins, and scratching of heads, and putting these gauzes between me and the white actor so that the light wouldn’t hit the white actor as much as it hit me. Because they just simply didn’t know, and frankly, probably didn’t care to know how to light Black skin properly. We like oranges and blues — the almost rainbow tones that some of us have in our skin get picked up with those lights. You put a plain white light on a Black actor, he disappears, he becomes bland, you don’t see the features, you don’t see the details of skin, but these guys did not learn that. And they were guys for the most part, of course.

And talk about makeup and hair… I mean, I’m a man who shaves his head now, but you could not imagine the looks of consternation on mainly female and certainly almost universally white [hair and make-up artists]. In fact, I don’t think I once had a Black makeup artist in the 35 years I’ve been at it. I must say that they are learning and they have learned well, but the cutting of Black hair, particularly men’s hair, was always atrocious. So we would always do it ourselves. Women, don’t talk about women. Black women’s hair is a complicated and skillful thing that you need to know in order to tackle it and make it look great. So these people need to be trained. And we did have Black people on the set who were able to deal with Afro hair, but they need to be in charge, in order for things to be good from the very beginning and for balls not to be dropped along the way.

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Image via Peacock

It’s a massive issue, really, in the profession and the profession is aware of it. There are courses that are happening now on Zoom through lockdown. People’s realization that this isn’t right, and that we haven’t really even thought about this. If you talk to a Black female actor about their history — talk to Bonnie [Mbuli] about her history of dealing in South Africa with film sets, and you will hear the stories.

To wrap up here — we talked about the universality of the show before. What are you hoping American audiences, in particular, get out of watching Noughts and Crosses?

JOSEPH: They should get the feeling that, love conquers all is being challenged, and I want them to take sides. I really do want them to take sides. If you believe that love conquers all, then I know what side you’ll be on. And if you don’t believe that, then I suspect you may well be on the other side. And it’ll be interesting to see which side you fall. And that’s what I want them to ask themselves, the question, do you believe that love conquers all?

Noughts and Crosses is streaming now on Peacock.

Television