Described as the British “Roots” by cast member Sir Lenny Henry, the screen adaptation of Andrea Levy’s 2010 novel, The Long Song tells the familiar tale of slavery, but not as you’ve ever seen it before.
From the opening scenes, you soon realise that this is not your run of the mill slavery tale. A headstrong and feisty July, played by Tamara Lawrance, is deliberately divesting the pearl buttons off her mistress’s gown before casually sauntering along her business, to the screeching soundtrack of said mistress Caroline’s (Hayley Atwell) relentless calls for her July, personal maid, who at the last-minute hurries through the door, feigning servitude and diligence.
We immediately fell in love with July, stunningly played by Lawrance who imbibed her character with heart and relatable vivacity. The early humour soon gives way to the deep and heart-wrenching reality of what we know about slavery and what life is like for a young female slave who lived on a Jamaican plantation in the 19th century.
The rape of female slaves, the forcible separation of a mother and her young child, the treatment of slaves, worse than animals and the worthless regard for their lives, all of this and more is addressed. However, while the subject matter is dire, the writer (Sarah Williams) and director (Mahalia Belo) manage to inject a skilful mix of warmth and humour into the story as well.
At a screening of The Long Song, Sir Lenny Henry, who played fellow slave, Godfrey, talked about the importance of humour in the drama. He said: “If there was no humour, people would just give up. It’s good to recognise the terrible things that went on, that make you go, ‘Oh my God’, but it’s also good to see the cluster of reactions around that, and the cluster of reactions around people being hanged, and having their faces eaten by maggots or having your children taken away and being oppressed for centuries, is that you have to find the levity and humour in the situation otherwise you would just keel over and die.”
While this drama is for all audiences, we feel it will have particular resonance for Black women as the narrative is told in the first-person voice of July, telling her story of survival and hope. In the words of the actress that played her, Tamara Lawrance, at the screening: “She may be in a subjugated position but in her own self-esteem, July is a Queen. She sees herself as royal and I think if she were to track her ancestry back, she’d probably come directly from African monarchy.” We couldn’t agree more.
The Long Song is on BBC1, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (18-20 December 2018) at 9pm.