Saturday, October 23, 2021

Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Long Song’ On PBS, About A Woman Experiencing The End Of Slavery In 1830s Jamaica

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The Long Song, a 3-part miniseries debuting on PBS’s Masterpiece on January 31, first aired on the BBC in late 2018, to much acclaim. Based on an award-winning novel, it revolves around the experience of an enslaved woman right around the time that slavery was abolished in Jamaica. Read on for more…

THE LONG SONG: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?

Opening Shot: Palm trees, a snake slithering through the grass, and the main house of a plantation.

The Gist: We hear the voice of an older Jamaican woman say “The life of a white Mrs. on a Jamaican sugar plantation be surely full of tribulation.” One of the things the woman cites, somewhat derisively, is “the lack of a suitable man to marry.” The plantation is Amity, the time period is the early 1830s and the Mrs.

July knows she can mess with the Mrs. because July knows that Caroline has no one else in her life.

The elderly woman whose voice we hear is writing about July’s life, saying we need to go back to the beginning. July’s mother Kitty (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) is a field slave, hacking away at the sugarcane for hours a day in the sun. She doesn’t get whipped like the other slaves because the Scottish overseer has his way with her whenever he wants. July is the product of that; Kitty is devoted to her daughter and is heartbroken when Caroline happens by with her brother John (Leo Bill) one day and brings July to the house to work for her.

As we get back to July as a young woman, though, she and the other slaves hear that a revolution is coming. There has been slave uprisings all over the island, and a freeman named Nimrod (Jordan Bolger) tells the house staff that it’s coming their way. At a Christmas dinner that Caroline overplans for, word comes down to John and his guests that the fields are being set on fire. John and the rest of the masters run to a ship back to England, but Caroline is kept behind. She begs to leave, but the head of the house staff demands payment… and demands that she call July by her actual name.

Thinking that the master and mistress are gone, July has the run of the mansion, and makes love to Nimrod in John’s bed.

Caroline comes in, finds Nimrod under the bed and accuses him of killing her brother. She’s encouraged by the overseer to kill him right there, but July helps him escape. They run to where the field slaves live, where July finds out that Kitty, whom Caroline said was sold to another master, is still there. But Kitty tells her to run and not look back.

Months later, though, after Nimrod is killed and Kitty is hung with other slaves for their role in the rebellion, July has a son, which she leaves at the door of the local church. She’s toiling in the field, but Caroline wants her to come back to the house. That’s when everything changes.

Photo: Heyday Television/Carlos Rodrigu

What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Roots, Underground, The Good Lord Bird… pretty much any series about slavery, except this one takes place in Jamaica, where slavery was abolished 30 years before it finally was abolished in the U.S.

Our Take: Based on Andrea Levy’s award-winning 2010 novel of the same name, The Long Song gives a perspective on slavery and abolition that seems familiar and unique at the same time.

The end of slavery in Jamaica has its own particular history and events.

But instead of a wide-ranging story, it tells the story of slavery in Jamaica from July’s perspective. July has been ripped from her mother, something that often happened to the children of slaves, even ones that were the product of “relationships” with white plantation employees that were more akin to sexual assault than anything else. She knows how to get under the skin of the awful Caroline, and Caroline has come to depend on her so much that, even when July gets under her skin, there are no consequences.

Screenwriter Sarah Williams and director Mahalia Belo don’t spare the viewer the horrific, dehumanizing existence the enslaved people had to suffer through every day. Certainly, July has gone through her share of cruelty at the hands of Caroline and her staff, having to witness the deaths of Nimrod and her mother. But the story is more about how July navigates through the horror, especially when she becomes Caroline’s head housekeeper and a new, more empathetic overseer named Robert Goodwin (Jack Lowden) arrives at the plantation just as slavery is about to be abolished.

The Long Song hinges on the relationship between July and Caroline, and both Lawrence and Atwell’s performances meet this challenge.

When the two of them are together in a scene, the tension between the characters — and the dependence Caroline has on July — is readily apparent.

Sex and Skin: July and Nimrod spend that one night together, but it’s shown in a very network-friendly manner.

Parting Shot: When we see Goodwin arrive and tell Caroline and July that in a few days the slaves will be free, the older July (Doña Croll) says in voice over, “If only my story were that simple.”

Sleeper Star: Jordan Bolger had a commanding presence as Nimrod. We wonder if we’ll see the character in one form or another in one of the other two episodes.

Most Pilot-y Line: Not sure if this was this way when the series first aired on the BBC in 2018, but on our screener, the audio dropped out when a character uttered the n-word. That was the harsh reality of the time, so we’re wondering why PBS made the decision to drop the audio there.

Our Call: STREAM IT. The Long Song is a surprisingly intimate view of the scourge that slavery was in Jamaica, and we’re interested in seeing July navigate her life after slavery was abolished.

Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie.

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