“The Long Song” knows what an audience might expect from a period drama airing on the BBC, as it did in the UK in 2018, or under the PBS Masterpiece banner, as it will in the US starting on January 31. The camera, helmed with a steady hand by director Mahalia Belo, pans across still life scenes of porcelain curios and rumpled silks in a manse surrounded by gently swaying palm trees. “The life of a white missus on a Jamaican plantation,” a narrator (Doña Croll) intones, “be surely full of tribulation — from the scarcity of beef to the want of a fashionable hat.” Within seconds, the piercing screech of that “white missus” shatters the idyllic scene, and the acidic streak of sarcasm laden in the narrator’s words comes more clearly into focus. “If that be the story you want to hear, then be on your way. Go,” she says, voice snapping with brittle anger. “Be on your way! For the story I have to tell is quite a different one.”
That the tragic heroine of this story is Black slave July (Tamara Lawrance) rather than her corseted white mistress — played by period drama veteran Hayley Atwell, no less — immediately marks “The Long Song” as a very different kind of Masterpiece series. Outside of something like Andrew Davies’ 2019 “Sanditon” adaptation, which cast Crystal Clarke as a Jane Austen character born in the West Indies, there really haven’t been any PBS Masterpiece dramas that spotlight Black characters, let alone have them steer the entire series. “The Long Song,” an adaptation of Andrea Levy’s 2010 novel, not only centers a very specific Black character and experience, but deliberately dares any skittish viewers expecting something quite different to look away. (That this first Masterpiece series to prominently feature Black people is a slave narrative is unsurprising, and worthy of further examination in and of itself.)
Born into slavery on a sugarcane plantation, July gets taken from her mother as a child simply because the owner’s sister Caroline (Atwell) spots her out in the fields and thinks she’s cute. There are many painful scenes yet to come, but this one is particularly crushing in its simplicity. Her kidnapping, which alters the course of her life and devastates her mother (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), is nothing more than a casual whim from people who have no awareness of their own cruelty. This pattern repeats itself over and over again throughout the series, each time just as wrenching as the last. For instance: Caroline’s insistence on calling July “Marguerite,” the better to fuel her fantasies of being a fancy lady of the manor even in a humid country she doesn’t understand, is a stabbing indignity every time. (Atwell, an actor who typically radiates warmth, does a remarkable job of curdling the atmosphere of every room unlucky enough to have Caroline in it.) Particularly fraught is the heel turn from Robert Goodwin (Jack Lowden), a white Brit who initially sweeps July off her feet with promises of fidelity and fair wages for all the recently freed slaves on the plantation. And yet he sours the second the Black people in his employ stand up for themselves, twisting into a hard, gnarled version of the idealistic man July fell for.
With just three episodes to tell the parallel stories of July, the so-called “Christmas Rebellion” of Jamaican slaves rising against their masters to catastrophic losses, and Robert’s transformation into exactly the kind of violent racist he once decried, “The Long Song” leans hard on its narration to speed things along and tie it all together. (The series was co-written by Levy and “Becoming Jane” scribe Sarah Williams.) This by and large works fine, with the notable exception of July and Robert’s whirlwind romance. Their relationship is such a crucial backbone for the rest of the narrative, especially as Caroline grows more jealous and July watches in horror as Robert resorts to ever more drastic measures to keep his Black employees effectively enslaved to do his bidding. Its foundation could’ve used a bit more consideration in order for Robert’s inevitable, awful betrayal to land most effectively.
By the end of the final episode, it’s clear that the series’ key uniting element is Lawrance. Playing July from a sly teenager to a young mother to a thoroughly bruised woman, Lawrance commands the screen in every iteration of the character. As befits a slave narrative, July is of course deeply traumatized, enduring and witnessing violence that would be unspeakable if its perpetrators weren’t distinctly bragging at their lavish dinner tables about it. As acted by Lawrance and written by Levy and Williams, however, July is also wry, funny and delightfully rude. She is, despite the best efforts of the white people constantly dismissing her as collateral, a full human worthy of starring in her own story.
“The Long Song” premieres Jan. 31 on PBS.