“If only my tale were so simple.”
I will never forget how I felt in the days following ABC-TV’s 1977 broadcast of Roots, the dramatic miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley’s controversial novel. Shock and shame come quickly to mind.
As I rode the New York City subway to work each morning after an episode’s broadcast, I was convinced that every passenger in my car had Roots on their mind. I felt sure that no matter what our race or color, we would never forget what we saw or allow future generations to bury slavery’s stain. It would be our responsibility to wipe racism from the face of the earth. Sadly, 44 years later, systemic racism continues to shred the soul of our nation.
We are long overdue for a dramatic wake-up call on broadcast TV and what better way to do it than on PBS with an adaptation of Andrea Levy’s critically acclaimed 2010 slave narrative, The Long Song. Levy (1956-2019) was born in London to Jamaican parents.
While it does not carry the provenance or scope of the Roots literary and film franchise, the three-part miniseries adaptation of Levy’s novel is timely and refreshingly focused on a female protagonist whose road to self-preservation and self-reliance is a journey well worth our time and attention.
The first episode of The Long Song premieres on PBS MASTERPIECE tonight, Sunday, January 31, 2021, at 10:00 p.m. ET/9:00 Central. Episodes 2 and 3 follow on successive Sundays, 10:00 p.m. ET/9:00 Central. (See below for further details).
The Long Song traces the tumultuous life story of a resilient young black woman named July, as she confronts the painful indignities of slavery from childhood through motherhood on a Jamaican sugar plantation before, during and after the Christmas Rebellion slave uprising of 1831. The story is told in flashback from July’s point of view.
The offspring of a field slave and the plantation’s Scottish overseer and resident rapist, July is cruelly snatched from her mother’s arms as a young girl, renamed Marguerite and repurposed as lady’s maid to Caroline (Hayley Atwell), the vapid, spoiled sister of the plantation owner. July caters to Caroline’s every whim, absorbing her racist abuse as she navigates the minefield and false promises she faces in pre- and post-Emancipation Jamaica.
As directed by Mahalia Belo and adapted for the screen by Sarah Williams, The Long Song’s fictional slave narrative is spiced with period romance, childish upper class lunacy and lush hot house exteriors. July’s service in the manor house away from the steamy plantation fields provides fleeting opportunity to work in well-appointed rooms, fall in love, bear children, reunite with her mother and even turn the tables on Caroline. But make no mistake, these opportunities are clearly hard won and fleeting. There is a price to be paid for happiness.
July’s story is thick with soul crushing reminders that blacks were inhumanely toyed with and tossed aside with no concern for their well-being in the British colony of Jamaica, in the early and mid-19th century. While not suitable for young children, The Long Song miniseries will have resonance in high school and college classrooms and library programs as a vital reminder and discussion catalyst about the harsh realities of slavery, its extensive geographic reach and long-term consequences. The miniseries will also be a welcome supplement to studies and discussions of Andrea Levy’s novel and body of work.
The first episode of the three-part miniseries, The Long Song, premieres on PBS MASTERPIECE tonight, Sunday, January 31, 2021, at 10:00 p.m. ET/9:00 Central. Episode 2 debuts on Sunday, February 7, 2021, at 10:00 p.m. ET/9:00 Central. Episode 3 will be broadcast on Sunday, February 14, 2021, at 10:00 p.m. ET/9:00 Central. Check local listings for air times in your region, http://pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece and the PBS Video app for streaming info and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-ray availability.
ABC-TV’s original eight-episode Roots (1977) miniseries is available for streaming from HBO Max and Amazon Prime, among others. Check Netflix and Amazon for DVD and Blu-ray availability. –Judith Trojan