How The Long Song Spotlights Ignored Black Caribbean History

PBS' The Long Song highlights the history of slavery in Jamaica, an aspect of Black History rarely depicted on American television.

The Long Song on PBS Masterpiece
Photo: PBS Masterpiece

This article contains spoilers for The Long Song.

The Long Song is the first miniseries featured in PBS Masterpiece’s 50th Anniversary season, and it’s U.S. arrival nearly three years after airing on BBC One is highlighting themes that some viewers may not be ready to process but that remain incredibly important.

The show is an adaptation of Andrea Levy’s 2010 novel recounting the story of how Jamaican slaves gained their freedom in the 1830’s. Levy worked with white screenwriter Sarah Williams on the script for The Long Song before her death in 2019. Although some may want to criticize Williams’ involvement for removing the Own Voices status from the series, it is important to note she successfully worked with Levy to adapt Small Island into a TV miniseries which aired on Masterpiece in 2009. Critics and the Black British community alike praised the miniseries for featuring the Windrush Generation. Overall, the script of The Long Song maintains Levy’s vision without any evidence of the white gaze or other forms of editorial interference. 

Each of the three episodes follows July (Tamara Lawrance), born into slavery, and how she later gains her freedom. She was taken from her mother Kitty (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) who worked cutting sugarcane to serve as the ladies’ maid for Caroline Mortimer (Hayley Atwell from Agent Carter). The Christmas Rebellion in 1831 followed by the subsequent Parliament bill banning slavery in Jamaica two years later and the changes to society that came as a result are told from her point of view. The story is told with a frame tale, as Older July (Doña Croll) narrates the events of her life in order to publish a book.  

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It is highly likely that, when the series first aired in the UK, decision-makers did not believe a story wholly focused on slavery in the Caribbean would be relevant to US audiences. Vice President Kamala Harris’ family background brings Jamaican history to the forefront. It is entirely feasible to imagine someone like July somewhere in her father’s ancestral line. Black History can’t be confined to just what happened in America when we’re discussing Black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. Although I haven’t been able to trace my own family tree from the nearby former British colony of Trinidad and Tobago, I am reasonably sure my own ancestors have a similar story. 

Masterpiece executive producer Susanne Simpson said in an interview that she is working with the UK and international production companies to address concerns that PBS series do not feature enough racial diversity. Some may see The Long Song as a step backward in that regard because it is a slavery-driven story, but this misses two important factors. First of all, The Long Song was not originally intended as a co-production with U.S. networks or streaming services. The primary target was U.K. readers of Levy’s book and Anglophone Caribbean audiences. Secondly, this is the first time a PBS scripted drama has centered slavery as the main plot point. Thirdly, new racially diverse scripted series that avoid and/or address those concerns are still at least a year or two from distribution. 

Atwell’s Caroline, along with her relatives and guests, abuse July physically and emotionally. She is threatened with the lash for extremely minor offenses. Caroline calls her “Marguerite” most of the time because she refuses to see her as fully human. There are scenes where slaves are whipped and families separated. As July is the ladies’ maid, she has some power over fellow slaves such as Hannah (Jo Martin from Doctor Who). These aspects are not what makes The Long Song unique in comparison to recent TV series, such as the 2016 Roots miniseries as well as the 1970’s miniseries, The Book of Negroes and Underground. How the series highlights both Jamaican culture and how British colonialism affected society is what sets the show apart.

Since this show is set in the 1830’s, there is strong evidence of Black culture that is separate from the norms imposed by slaveholders. Although the language is at times dated (“pickaninny” also shortened as “pickney” is now an offensive term, for example), you still hear the accent unique to Jamaicans today. Lenny Henry’s voice as Godfrey is not entirely realistic for a slave who never left Jamaica, but this does take some prior knowledge of what a typical accent from the area should sound like. The soundtrack incorporates the musical styles unique to the island and the separate Christmas party the slaves held also brings this culture to life. 

The racial caste system in Jamaica plays a huge role in the life of July and those around her. Her father, Tam Dewer (Gordon Brown), was the Scottish overseer of the plantation which gave her a higher status than many of her fellow slaves, despite her darker skin tone. Her friend and first romantic interest Nimrod (Jordan Bulger) is a free man but he ends up losing his status because white people decide he is guilty of a crime. Miss Clara (Madeline Mantock) is described as a quadroon (one-quarter African ancestry) and uses that background to secure a marriage that guarantees a higher status in society. Marriage as a form of social mobility would have been impossible in American slave societies because consensual interracial marriages or relationships were outlawed. July’s decision-making in Episodes 2 and 3 regarding the new head of the plantation, Robert Goodwin (Jack Lowden), is entirely influenced not only by her own desires and past trauma but also by the society around her.

Some may regard these plot developments as enforcing trauma-bonding stereotypes or problematic ideas about love under systems of oppression. July’s narration is tinged with romantic ideals that do not undergo serious scrutiny until later in the story. However, it is important to note that marriage was the only way a woman during this time period could secure financial stability that didn’t depend on agricultural labor. The color-based caste and class system did prevent some individuals from moving up in society, but intermarriages between whites, Africans, various immigrant laborers, and indigenous groups created an entire segment of society whose heritage was mixed. July’s relationship should be seen as an element of historical truth, likely from Levy’s ancestors. The conclusion of that part of the story drives home that many of these relationships between Black women and white male planters (plantation owners) were inherently unequal and exploitative. Any children from these relationships were also the property of the white men. 

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The last two episodes of the show discuss the fallout from the official end of slavery in Jamaica, a semi-equivalent to the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War. Abolition did not mean the end of the white-dominated rule in Jamaica, as the British Empire ruled the island until 1962. Although Black plantation workers were paid wages to cut the sugarcane, they owed rent to the plantation owners. This was used to force workers to work longer hours for reduced compensation. July’s loyalties are divided between Goodwin and the field workers who she knows are being treated unfairly. Goodwin’s efforts to increase production failed as the workers went on strike. After the strikes, many former plantation workers moved inland to cultivate unclaimed territory, but independent farming led to poverty and illness. July may have had dreams of rising above the sugarcane workers, but economic racism dashed this dream.

For many viewers, July’s journey is going to be incredibly triggering and emotionally draining but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The ending which reunites her with a piece of her long-forgotten past is incredibly satisfying. Levy’s novels have inspired many Black British writers and it is very possible post-pandemic that there will be more Black screenwriters telling their own stories and forgotten histories on screen.