When Tamara Lawrance starred in and was first promoting “The Long Song,” the Black Lives Matter movement and organization had already been in existence for half a decade. But now the limited series in which she plays a slave in 19th Century colonial Jamaica is debuting on PBS as a part of its “Masterpiece” slate, just months after the movement made global headlines amid the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.
“We are very clearly living in the ramifications of the psychosis of enslaving a body of people and on some level psychological warfare on a body of people and on some level a genocide as well. That is the reason why Black and brown bodies can be killed with video evidence and nobody cares,” Lawrance tells Variety. “Even in the filming of it I was struck by the parallel of walking off set into a world — it was filmed in the Dominican Republic — that was colonized by Spain and very much celebrates Columbus and what was brought to that country. Their relationship with Haiti, with darker-skinned people in particular, is very problematic, and you’re filming in cane, where people still worked. So a lot of these things are very alive, very present, today, and I hope that people will be able to make that connection.”
Andrea Levy adapted her own 2010 novel of the same name, writing alongside Sarah Williams, for “The Long Song,” which blends humor, time period anachronisms and winks to the modern audience into its deeply dramatic tale of what being a slave looked like for Lawrance’s July, who was ripped from her mother while they were working in a field to be the lady’s maid to plantation owner Caroline (Hayley Atwell). The story follows July’s journey as the plantation comes under new management, so to speak, when Caroline gets married, and the story also explores the transition to freedom for the people of the island.
But, “The Long Song” isn’t just out to mine the trauma of slavery: It is a coming-of-age tale for July, and it is also a story that showcases the enslaved people as their own heroes.
Here, Lawrance talks with Variety about the importance of showcasing humanity in stories about slavery and upending the white savior tale in “The Long Song,” as well as playing in trauma for both this series and her upcoming film, “The Silent Twins.”
Stories about slavery are often centered on the American narrative, but the crime was not a monolithic experience. What do you think is most interesting about opening up the British perspective to a wider audience?
I’ve found there’s extreme value in highlighting Britain’s culpability in transatlantic slavery. There’s a lot of blame-shifting that I think comes out of British history, in the way that it’s taught: We learn about the second World War and [how] Germans are really bad and the propaganda that happened over there and the civil rights, but there’s massive gaps in the truth of the empire and the truth of the commonwealth and the truth of trade and money and how Britain became a first-world country, as it were.
To overthrow a colonizer is a big thing, and it’s important for people to see that and to recognize where we come from — especially particularly Caribbean people, to recognize the strength of the people you come from. People want to hide slavery and see it as an embarrassing time in history and we shouldn’t talk about that anymore because some people feel really guilty and some people feel ashamed to be descendants from slaves, but I think there’s a lot of honor in being descended from people who had the capacity, despite everything that was happening, to go, “No more, this is inhumane.” In every era over the centuries, there was constant uprisings, constant rebellions, of people understanding their own humanity and recognizing that this is not how life should be lived. And if it wasn’t for them, history as we know it would have been completely different. So, I think there’s a lot to be celebrated from this story.
How did the tone of “The Long Song” help with getting into and out of the character and heavy world on set?
Obviously it was one of the most intensely traumatic periods in world history, but for that to not be the narrative of the story that we follow allowed me to actually have a lot of fun on that job. There was a lot of pain that I carried that I processed afterwards, understanding that I am still living in the world that really did this to people and that’s not a pain you can get away from; that’s a trauma that we still carry in our bodies and our psychology. But the job had a lot of lightness in it because there were a lot of playable things that were not about those big themes.
What were some of those moments for you?
July is a 17-year-old girl who is discovering her sexuality at the start of the episodes and she likes someone and he fancies her back and, yeah, the context is that she’s enslaved and she’s working in this household, but we also understand who has the power because she doesn’t fawn to Caroline. There’s an element of fear when she’s being chased around and stuff like that, but she also ultimately understands that she has one-upmanship; she knows that Caroline is ultimately a bit of a fop in July’s mind. She knows how to wield whatever agency she does have, whether that’s “I’ll come when I want to come” when she calls; “I’ll take my time.” Because of all of that, there’s so much humanity in this story.
Often times these stories are told if not through the white savior lens then at least with that as as big theme in the narrative. “The Long Song” has a would-be white savior in Robert (Jack Lowden). What do you think it will take to no longer need that inclusion?
The white savior as an archetype was present, but what was brilliant about the story that Andrea chose to tell is that July is the hero; the people who work in the fields save themselves. There’s a line where, “No is the most powerful word in all of history” and a moment where Peggy Jump turns around and says, “We be slaves no more,” like “You can’t talk to me like this.” That’s what started the rest of history.
Between “The Long Song” and the film in which you are in production now, “The Silent Twins,” about June and Jennifer Gibbons, trauma is a recurring theme for characters on your résumé. What keeps drawing you to such dramatic work?
I’m interested in resilience, characters that have a brokenness and yet despite that we either see them win or work it out or how they try and maybe it doesn’t work out because of this thing they can’t get over, which is trauma. It bowls me over very frequently how much your childhood can determine the rest of your life and how if you don’t have the tools or the access to help, how some things are destined. I’m just really interested in that. To experience the extent of joy, you have to be OK with knowing pain, and I think some of the characters I’ve played have taught me that as well.
I’m also trying to tap into these characters’ strengths, and what I think is really cool about both “The Long Song” and “The Silent Twins” is that they really are trying to show nuances. With “The Silent Twins,” it’s going against the media’s depictions of them as creepy, drugged-up girls, and show that they were teenagers with a lot of humor and ambition who were misunderstood and done a disservice by the mental health system and the criminal justice system. It won’t just be focused on their pain but also on their sisterly love and their talent; they were very clever young girls and had they been born in a different time they could have been a Bernadine Evaristo, Malorie Blackman. They were great authors and they wrote a lot, it’s just that that side of who they were didn’t really get the time of day.
“The Long Song” premieres Jan. 31 on PBS.