BBC’s The Long Song – in conclusion

There are so many things to be said for and against this amazing show.

Based on the historical novel by Andrea Levy, The Long Song is the story of an enslaved woman, July/Marguerite (Tamara Lawrence) living in Jamaica in 1838 under British rule as slavery comes to an end.

Firstly, did we need another slave drama? How long will these triggering references to one aspect of our past continue to be focused on and highlighted over and over again? We also have history of being Kings, Queens, Warriors and Scholars. Why is this version of history the one needed especially around Christmas? Is this a GiftAid plot and will the soundtrack become the next “Feed the World” anthem?

But although there were things about The Long Song I took umbrage with, it is important to highlight how pivotal it is to see a slave drama highlighting the British involvement and culpability in the slave trade, an aspect usually swept under the rug. Which makes it equally important that it aired on primetime British television. The first step in the healing of any negative relationship is admitting you have a problem, therefore for bringing to screen the British involvement in slavery I applaud the BBC and all those involved in its making. It is necessary.

Now to the aspects that I found, halting. There is a lot of incendiary triggering that is vital to note as it highlights known and unknown aspects of what slavery and the end of it meant to our people. More especially in episode 2 where, for me, the main difference of The Long Song versus any other slave narrative lies.

The Long Song adaptation looks at newly freed slaves and at the fact that due to ridiculous statutes, like compensation from the crown rewarded to slave owners for their loss of slaves/capital, instead of to the slaves for their prolonged suffering, the newly freed were no better off. White plantation owners began taking rent from the emancipated for homes they’d built and resided since being stolen. Former slaves had to keep toiling on the plantations because free though they may now be, the majority still could not read so were hampered in the seeking of a better life and better employment away from the plantations. Plus, as episode 3 shows, what better life was there to be had anyway? Lastly, for all the freedom to work, they still called the overseer “Massa“.

Although I suppose, if one put two and two together from episode one, you could see it coming. It is there in the fact that being a free black man, before general freedom came to the island, was not enough to guarantee you safety. As John Lea joked in Roots (another slave drama, just saying), “What do you call a free n***a in the South?… A n***a

All that being said, The Long Song does have an educational beauty as it shows the refreshing context that slavery involved the British in prominent ways. That even after being freed, there was white and black hierarchy which few transcended. That July and how her story ended is actually more the exception not the rule. The reality for a majority of the freed, would have been a lot darker (no pun intended).

The show also has aesthetic beauty in and around its casting. I know there was some controversy around Lawrence’s casting as a mixed race black woman given her hue, but I quite enjoyed how it was worked into the show that other characters (racialised as black and white) could not tell she was a “mulatto” and so it was a card she had to play (and prove) to help her gain the status she desired.

The wit and humour that arose from day to day life on this plantation is an unexpected gem and has to be credited to the direction of the show and the huge talent of the actors. Tamara Lawrence, Sir Lenny Henry, Sharon Duncan-Brewster et al. are brilliant and the sheer prowess of the acting across the board keeps you deeply invested in this beautiful story. I feel it would be unfair to highlight any one performance over another as this is the true definition of an ensemble piece but all I will say is, in all the episodes, there is no small part. The actors fill each line and moment with magic.

I really just wish I was watching them in a story about their power and not making the best of a bad situation… yet again. To echo Sir Henry’s sentiment, where are the period pieces about the lives lived by society blacks? They existed too.

Read TBB Talks with lead actress of The Long Song, Tamara Lawrence:

The Long Song is available to watch via BBC iPlayer


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