Mahalia Bello’s study of the end of slavery in Jamaica, “The Long Song” is incisive, insightful and prioritizes the humanity of the enslaved.
On Christmas Day in 1831, tens of thousands of slaves in Jamaica rebelled against their masters, burning acres and acres of sugar cane. By the end of the first week of January, the rebellion had been brutally quashed by Britain. But from that point on, it was clear that the days of slavery in the colonies were coming to an end. In 1833, that’s exactly what happened. The Long Song tells the story of July (Tamara Lawrance), a slave woman who lives through this transitory period as the primary maid to Caroline Mortimer (Hayley Atwell), the mistress of the plantation. The series frames these events through the narration of an older and wiser July (Doña Croll), decades after the events of we’re witness to.
July starts off naïve but grows increasingly guarded as her few happy moments are tarnished by her harsh treatment. However, those sparks of joy still remain, Lawrance’s charm is too strong for you to really resist its grasp, even when you know that joy is unsustainable. She runs a really interesting parallel with her mistress in this regard; despite Caroline’s supposed superiority she is shown time and time again to be foolish.
With a mix of Atwell’s hilarious ditzy performance and the ways we are shown the Black slaves/workers getting one over on her, the supposedly God-ordained position of the slave-owners is made pathetic here by Andrea Levy and Sarah Williams’ incisive script. The tension between the two of them is persistent and electric, as they constantly try to get one up on each other in ways that very subtle shift alternates between the laughable and the despicable. Jack Lowden comes in as a new overseer Robert Goodwin and disrupts this dynamic – creating a lot of the interpersonal drama. Much like the other two, Lowden begins as a naive optimist but shifts in a way that Lowden conveys expertly. His characterization throughout the show is a damning excoriation of the white liberal who upholds a ‘nicer’ version of inherently destructive systems. Croll’s powerful melancholic tones guide is through all of this, with a subtle melancholy which infuses everything with a creeping sense of foreboding whilst still retaining her wit.
The pair of them as a fiery duo reflects the what the show does so well holistically. It’s constantly funny, with a sense of joy running through it. The slaves aren’t just vessels upon which trauma can be inflicted, they’re real people with interpersonal drama and singing and dancing brought to life by Mahalia Bello’s direction. They often successfully steal from their masters and find little ways to claim their own power for humorous purposes. However, this jubilation and good humor is starkly contrasted with the abject cruelty of the masters. Whilst Caroline isn’t competent, she can still weaponize the power of her wealth and whiteness to ensure that anyone who gets on the wrong side of her can suffer.
The Long Song refuses to be a conventional period drama, pushing back against one-dimensional portrayals of the enslaved, whilst also never letting the masters of the system off the hook.
These juxtapositions are where the sharp critique contained within the show comes through. Chloë Thomson’s cinematography works brilliantly to create these sharp contrasts. At one point Atwell very casually says “It is high time we had some fun”, referring to the dinner party she intends to hold at Christmas, and the shot widens for use to see a slave getting whipped. Almost every interpersonal drama that Caroline has is immediately put into perspective and minimised – the real cruelty is always clear.
In this, The Long Song ends up forming a really effective anti-period drama. Instead of focusing on the wigs and the dresses and wide shots of the beautiful landscapes, we stay on the ground with the struggle of the people that this opulence is built on the backs of. A lot of these critiques, especially linking the struggle of (Black) working-class free people under capitalism to slavery, are very much applicable in the present.
There are definitely moments where the dedication to this subversive approach falters. In the middle episode, the cast’s intoxicating charm of its performers means we get a little lost in the sanguine emotional drama rather than the sharp critique of the first episode. However, by the end of the second episode, the focus is regained and the momentum and power return.
The Long Song refuses to be a conventional period drama, pushing back against one-dimensional portrayals of the enslaved. At the same time, it never lets the masters of the system off the hook. With powerful performances and incisive scripting, this is a tale worth singing about.
The Long Song is a three-episode miniseries, airing Sundays at 10 PM ET on PBS. Each episode will be available for streaming on PBS’ website for two weeks the day after its premiere.