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The Past Comes Back to Bite in Julian Jarrold's Adaptation of White Teeth

Words by Izzy Orton

Recently added to Netflix, Julian Jarrold's dramatisation of Zadie Smith’s best-selling novel White Teeth (2000) confronts the familial tensions and identity struggles within many diasporic communities in the cultural melting pot of Willesden, West London. The mini-series documents the turbulent lives of first-generation immigrants from Jamaica and Bangladesh, tracing the paths of their families and their children's erratic relationships with their colourful cultural backgrounds. A fast-paced and vibrant start to the century, White Teeth tackles sensitive topics from religion to suicide with a humorous and light hearted spin.

Encompassing debates about science and religion, racial fetishization, and many more, the series strikes a perfect balance between being deeply thought-provoking and funny. Though Zadie Smith herself admitted that it is melodramatic in places and that the original novel's ending was 'calamitous', the series successfully highlights the frustrations that come with generational pressure and teenage angst.

The first episode sees Clara shift from fervent preaching as a Jehovah's Witness (as forcefully encouraged by her mother Hortense), to getting drunk and having sex with a stranger in a pub toilet within the same day, foreshadowing White Teeth's many unpredictable twists and turns. The alienation faced by the parents and the children results in both extreme rebellion against family values and unexpected generational parallels.

Recently divorced Archie, a painfully unexciting British man, reunites with his close friend Samad thirty years after they served in the war together. Samad, emigrating from Bangladesh to Willesden, enthusiastically anticipates his arranged marriage with his future wife, Alsana. Samad and Archie are an unlikely pair, much like many of the friendships and relationships throughout the series. Archie’s reliance on tossing a coin to decide his future is contrasted with Samad’s deep sentimentality and sense of religious purpose, both somehow resulting in impulsive mistakes.

Spanning from the mid-70s to the early 90s, White Teeth's obsession over the past shows how it always seeps into the present, whether we want it to or not. Although the series was released in 2002, it feels timeless because of the universal issues running throughout. The themes are certainly pertinent today given the state of the current political climate—what with the polarities caused by Brexit and the pandemic, the ideological disparities throughout the series could not be more relevant.

White Teeth never shies away from poking fun at controversial topics, focusing particularly on diasporic attitudes to the contemporary Western world. An aspect I particularly enjoyed about the series was that it doesn't treat religious minorities as simply oppressed 'others'— Smith points to the flaws in every family regardless of their heritage, successfully conveying the complex dynamics of family life. Rapidly becoming disillusioned by England, Samad Iqbal, father to twins Millat and Majid, laments the 'corruption of the West’ whilst hypocritically tearing apart his own marriage and living vicariously through his son Majid to absolve him from his own religious guilt.

Ultimately, the series epitomizes many issues faced by the millennial teen before the proliferation of social media. Despite the novel’s success, the series is certainly underrated and would be enjoyed by most regardless of age or cultural background.

[Image: New on Netflix UK, October 2020]

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