I was born in NW10. Central Middlesex Hospital to be precise. And I’ve loved Zadie Smith ever since my sister and I watched white teeth in her bedroom long after mum banished us upstairs because it was a “big people programme.” So you can imagine my glee when I saw NW was on the TV. I have to admit recently, I’ve become one of those people. You know the ones that watch first read later (how common!) But nevertheless, I was excited to see another Zadie epic, in my almost ends.
Then I watched it. Now, I have to reiterate I have not read the book so I won’t slate it neither will I proclaim that all of my issues lie with the TV adaption.
What I will say, which you’ve probably gathered- I was grossly unimpressed. Then I was irritated. Then I was unimpressed again.
Where do I begin…
My initial thoughts were to be expected: We’ve got the Black female coconut and urban white saviour as friends. So we have class roles subverted- woopie. However, the more I watched; the more irritated I became. Not only was the white girl – Leah- much more likeable than her snooty bredrin Natalie (formerly Keisha) she was increasingly more likeable than any of the other black characters. Except for Felix (the former drug dealer) and his motivational girlfriend, all the black characters were aggressively underdeveloped and profoundly stereotypical.
But don’t take my word for it, let’s list them:
Chay: light-skinned junkie teef (thief) with abusive boyfriend.
Chay’s abusive boyfriend (whose name I can’t even remember – if it was mentioned at all): the 30+ badman who dressed and spoke like a year 9 roadman, had a permanent screwface and ‘shanked’ someone for asking him to ask his friend to take his feet off the tube.
Michael: Leah’s French husband always looking for a come up, presumably why he married her, who gets beaten up by the roadmen for standing up for his ooman.
Beggarman: Football hopeful turned beggar, now an accessory to badman (listed above) murder.
Felix’s dad: Rastaman from Garvey house, loves white women, plays reggae non-stop, seemingly unable to function with life- let alone put a T-shirt over his string vest (Kilburn is cold yunuh).
You get the picture.
Natalie/Keisha’s mother and mentor seem ite, but overall no tropes disturbed in this portrayal.
At least until we see Keisha tun swinger and engage in various orgies.
Yes big married barrister going on apps to get some.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m neither naïve nor prudish, I understand people do these things. But what dumbfounds me is her brazenness. She gets filmed having sex, despite her job, stature or even shame. And of course, this video is seen by her gorgeous mixed husband, (who gets his wealth from his Italian side) because barristers can’t lock their ipads! Not one scene passes between Keisha’s Kim K escapades to her husband’s shock discovery. No suspense, no dramatization just orgy to liquor to blow up.
Things do escalate quickly as Keisha goes from bunning a spliff with the local beggar, a former crush of hers, to contemplating suicide. Of course, old girl doesn’t take the plunge- her bravery is reserved to the bedroom.
Leah is also a troubling character. After trying for a baby with her husband, she discovers she longer wants a baby when she is pregnant. Leah decides to have an abortion alone without discussing with her husband. This scene actually was directed incredibly well. Now, I firmly support the right to choose- but in the context her silence over her decision seemed bizarre. Surely she would have to tell her husband some day?
Or perhaps, it seemed bizarre because the story behind them trying for a baby, her desires for children and even her choice not to have children were not explored within the movie. Keisha had a lovely flashback to her crushing on beggarman in the 1907s, the TV adaptation did not give Leah the same privilege.
And therein lies my greatest issue with the whole film: it was simply unbelievable. Now I know many, if not all, of these situations are true and happen often enough, but there is a great difference between truth and belief. The adaptation did not explore these themes or even characters so that even where other sides of their character arcs were displayed, they were not believable. The characters had limited depth though Smith clearly constructed them to be multi-faceted. And the result was a number of stereotypical tropes being poorly demonstrated within a few characters.
The closing scene is probably the best evidence of this. After her suicide attempt, Keisha calms down and pens a confession of sorts to her distressed husband. He refuses to read this letter with the epic line: “all confessions are self-serving” (I must find a way to use that) and leaves the room. Keisha’s melancholy is disrupted by a phone call from Michael – Leah’s husband- that his wife is beholden to a hammock. Keisha promptly goes to see Leah- whose emotional needs she’s been ignoring the whole movie in favour of her sleeping tablets and swinging seshs- to talk her out of the hammock. Keisha confesses her marriage is over – but fails to disclose why- and Leah confirms she does not want kids.
There on the hammock, the two friends from Kilburn contemplate life and Keisha realises her beggar beau may be involved in the local murder (of poor Felix). She reclaims her ghetto roots, puts on a bourgeois urban voice and tells the police “she’s got summfin to tell em” – end of movie.
I know right, talk about anti-climactic.
I sat and pondered for some time after this, trying to figure out what the ass I had just watched: Barristers bruck out; marriages bruck down; shanks; dead dogs; and suicide attempts all perpetrated by black protagonists.
Zadie/BBC you tek it too far.