mon 21/10/2019

Who Do You Think You Are? - Naomie Harris, BBC One review - shocks old and new | reviews, news & interviews

Who Do You Think You Are? - Naomie Harris, BBC One review - shocks old and new

Who Do You Think You Are? - Naomie Harris, BBC One review - shocks old and new

Naomie Harris's fascinating story stretched back to Caribbean slavery

Naomie Harris started the process knowing next to nothing about her family

This episode of the celebrity genealogy show began with footage of Naomie Harris at Ian Fleming's former home in Jamaica, where she was helping launch Bond 25 (to be released next year), in which she is playing Moneypenny for the third time. It was a fitting location, as Harris’s folks hail from the Caribbean; her mother was born in Jamaica and her father's family are from Trinidad via Grenada.

But, unusually for a subject of this consistently engaging show, Harris told us she was never interested in her origins. It was a strange admission – what really, no interest at all? – but one that a family estrangement, revealed later, may have played some part in. Her view had changed, however, when her mother gave her a DNA test kit as a present, and she found she was 48 per cent Nigerian. There was a family story that she had some Irish blood too.

We learned about the struggles her Jamaican family went through

Harris was disarmingly honest about growing up with just her mum and her grandfather; her father wasn’t present in her life, and when they met for this show she was shocked by his rather blasé revelation that she has a large array of aunts, uncles and cousins who lived just a few streets away from where she grew up in north London, but none of whom she had never met. Fine actress though she is, she couldn’t hide the surprise and disappointment, perhaps even irritation, that flashed across her face

Her story took her to the three islands her family has connections with, and whether consciously or not, a bad/good family dynamic was played out as she traced first her father's line, then her mother's.

On her father’s side she was able to trace her family back to Somerset in England – “I’ve come full circle,” Harris said with a wry smile – but the Irish connection didn't pan out. She was distressed to learn that a forebear was an overseer on a plantation and as such would have been responsible for what a WDYTYA? historian called “disciplining” slaves. “Upsetting and regrettable,” Harris called it.

But worse was to come; her four-times-great-grandfather, also an overseer on an estate, was involved in the exploitation of people euphemistically called “liberated Africans”. After slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire, on many Caribbean estates slaves were replaced by indentured workers who had been shipped there from Africa in the same appalling conditions as those who went before them. They worked for pennies and could not leave their employment for several years.

The story of Harris’s mother’s line – despite the presence of slavery here too, but from the other side – struck a more positive note, and the actress appeared more engaged. As a child Harris was close to her mother’s father, and she laughed off the clear implication of his birth certificate having a blank space where his father’s name should be – “Has my whole life been a lie? Am I not a Harris?”

The research revealed which of her ancestors first landed in Jamaica; it was her five-times-great-grandmother, from whom her African ancestry – presumably Nigerian – comes. The beam on Harris’s face on learning where that connection lay suggested she had changed her mind about clambering through the family tree.

We learned about the struggles her Jamaican family went through, and of the appalling conditions in which generations had lived, in poverty and poor health, enduring poor housing and surviving reformatory schools. We heard about the many cruelties of slavery, and the obsession with colour and race in the Empire – non-white people were described on estate records by how much “blackness” they had (mulatto, sambo, etc) that is sickeningly reminiscent of Nazi Germany.

But Harris, whose quiet dignity and humour shone through, was determined to take some positives from what her ancestors had experienced. “I’m so grateful for all their sacrifices because if they didn’t make them I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “I’m glad they’re getting remembered.” Quite so.

Fine actress though she is, she couldn’t hide the surprise and disappointment

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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