Review: Portia Simspon-Miller – The Girl from Woodhall

Recently, Television Jamaica (TVJ) showed a documentary  “The Girl from Woodhall” which was a political biography of Portia Simpson Miller, Jamaica’s first female prime minister (2006-7, 2011-2016) and first female president of the People’s National Party (PNP) from 2005-2017..

A documentary well worth watching. 

 “The Girl from Woodhall” was a very fair portrayal of Portia’s political career from her humble beginnings in the hills of St Catherine in a village called Woodhall (also known as Reds) and ending up at the highest office in Jamaican politics. A feat that is remarkable even by today’s standard of political development.

The programme was a good, enlightening and essential and was presented/narrated by Giovanni Dennis. The docu gave Jamaican viewers an insight to Mrs Simpson-Miller’s political career which spanned over  5-6 decades, a career which was at times controversial, contentious, challenging and inspiring.

The fact that an African Jamaica woman such as Simpson-Miller who from unfashionable circles rose to the zenith of representational politics in a society that tends to judge your level of credibility and acceptability by colour, gender, wealth and pedigree is a testament to her resilience, courage and longevity.

The documentary had a number of anecdotal contributions from the likes of Lambert Brown, Aloun Ndombet-Assamba, Jennifer Edwards, Deborah Hickling-Gordon, PJ Patterson, Peter Phillips, Mark Golding, Floyd Morris, Julian Robinson and Paul Burke (all senior PNP colleagues) 

There were also contributions from the rival Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) including Karl Samuda, Andrew Holness and Bruce Golding.

Surprisingly there was no input from any of Portia’s (political) cousins such as Everald Warmington, Natalie Neita Garvey, Noel Arscott or Richard Azan. But then again it’s likely that some turned down the chance to appear in the docu.

Other input to the docu came from journalists Vashan Brown, Dionne Jackson-Miller, Milton Walker and Nadeen Spence as well as residents from Simpson-Miller’s former constituency of South West St Andrew.

We learnt from her aides how Simpson-Miller the MP was keen to maintain a dignified discretion of those families she assisted with their education expenses. Simpson-Miller’s reason was she  did not think it was right for the wider public to know private challenges faced by her constituents. Respect for that.

It was clear from some PNP comrades on social media that  they were not happy that Bruce Golding was given so much air time in the docu. But Golding and Simpson Miller’s political careers were aligned from the early 1970s. Plus he  made a number of salient points and his and Simpson-Miller ancestry goes way back to the same area in St Catherine. 

(Simpson-Miller godmother (Mrs H) and the Goldings were neighbours in the nearby town of Old Harbour. Mrs H and both Golding’s mum and wife were teaching colleagues at the then Old Harbour Secondary.)

The documentary reminded the viewer of the snobbery Simpson-Miller faced from some of her senior colleagues who felt she did not the educational pedigree to justify being leader of the party. 

(There has been a ridiculous trend in Jamaican work culture that to be worthy of senior management roles you have to have had attained a minimum of a master’s degree or a PhD whether you have leadership competencies or not. Hence many of the senior public sector heads are holders of Doctorates)

The docu also highlighted how Simpson-Miller’s leadership was mired by elocution smugness of her critics. Some comrades have never forgiven their own colleagues for their facetious behaviour towards Simpson-Miller. 

To me Portia – on the political campaign trail- was a ferocious and engaging voice of the people. The way she said the word “wicked” when describing a policy or action by the JLP was done with such vigour and fervour it energised her audience.

In the docu, Bruce Golding justified the JLPs elocutionary attacks on Simpson-Miller by saying the PNP started it. But Golding should have known better and not crossed that line given his own father’s ancestral roots was minutes away from Woodhall in Bellas Gate. 

(A testament to Simpson-Miller’s dignity was even after those personal attack by Bruce’s JLP she still attended the funeral of his mum a few years later and even hugged him)

But all agreed that Simpson-Miller was a unique and much loved politician who had cross party appeal and was well respected both nationally and on the global stage. The likes Jamaicans will never see again. 

The documentary revealed that then-PM Simpson-Miller’s absence from media interviews was influenced mainly by Simpson-Miller’s advisers’ attempt  to shield her from what they perceived as potential embarrassment. In the end such over protection proved counterproductive. As Karl Samuda said Simpson-Miller’s senior advisers should have “let Portia be Portia”. Simple.

There was little to no input in the documentary from the other key stakeholders such as the business community, civil society and sporting arena. Something that was glossed over was her role as sports minister.

But interestingly there was little input to the docu from those younger PNP comrades who came to prominence because of Portia’s influence over the past 2 decades.

[My 2 main criticisms of Portia’s full term premiership.

  1. The decision to amend that sacred law and withdraw $JM45bn from the National Housing Trust (NHT) coffers of many Jamaican contributors for non housing economic issues. There were no legal measures put in place for the money to be returned. The current JLP administration (who criticised the decision at the time) has continued this financial raid of the NHT with a total $57bn to be taken out by 2025.
  2. There were times when she should have shaken up things in her government by having a cabinet reshuffle. It was clear the Simpson-Miller’s administration was flagging in certain portfolios (crime, education, banking, transport) and dogged by allegations of poor governance.]

Simpson-Miller was praised for her creating a broad cabinet of ministers made up of the various warring factions (incl. those who didn’t support her) within the PNP.  Simpson-Miller was also commended for not micromanaging the cabinet. [But for me there were times when she should have stepped in and cracked the whip as the compliancy displayed at times was part of the PNP administration’s eventual downfall at the 2016 general election.] 

The PNP election campaign ahead of that 2016 general election was nonexistent and Simpson-Miller has to carry the can for that defeat. Simpson-Miller was certainly not her usual energetic and engaging self when she came calling in our area during the campaign.

Some in the PNP praised how Forbes magazine rated Simpson-Miller as one of the 100 most influential figures and yet in another line said in the docu she was not allowed to lead because of the muzzling by her closest advisors. 

For someone who has had such an extensive career spanning 6 decades I felt the documentary should have been in 2 parts. It seemed rushed or stuck too long on one subject matter.

Simpson-Millers body of work as just a cabinet minister alone was broad and thus the docu did not have the time frame to report on some of her achievements and pivotal moments as a government minister e.g. As Labour minister Simpson-Miller disclosed the audit findings of farmwork corruption that eventually led to the imprisonment of former Labour minister J.A.G. Smith (JLP). 

Shame the viewer was not able to hear from Simpson-Miller in her current mode. But I am sure there are valid reasons for her absence. 

When prime minister Holness slipped in the final segment of the docu that his government was working on steps to honour Simpson-Miller, Giovanni Dennis should have – out of courtesy  – gathered some feedback from current PNP leader Mark Golding on Holness’ comments. 

Especially as the PNP said recently that they were never consulted by Nigel Clarke (finance minister) who decided to create a new bank note with the face of PNPs Michael Manley next to that of JLPs Edward Seaga – both former prime ministers and lifelong bitter enemies.

Despite Woodhall being in the title of the documentary so little time was spent in Woodhall or the nearby villages of Browns Hall, Bellfield, Bartons, Marlie Hill etc where Simpson-Miller would have visited over the years and still had extended family relations in that area.

Unless I missed it, the viewer was not informed of the names of Simpson-Miller’s parents or how many siblings she had. We didn’t get any idea from the docu about who was Portia Simpson-Miller away from the public eye or her outside interests.

It has been great to see the number of documentaries, discussions, books and interviews in recent times focusing on some of the the women who were key to Jamaica’s development since 1944 e.g. the excellent  Beverley Manley Duncan’s 4 parter

Portia Simpson-Miller was a unique political juggernaut. I first had that impression as a kid in the 1970s/early 1980s when I’d seen her on our road. Even then I was staggered by the majority margins she won her seat by at the general election. Her appeal across party lines was there for all to see and she even developed a close friendship with former JLP leader Edward Seaga. 

A certain JLP MP was known to throw out of his constituency office anyone who made disparaging remarks about Simspn-Miller. 

I do hope Simpson-Miller publishes her memoirs in time as her full story is worth sharing.

In the end, time restrictions meant “The Girl from Woodhall” was limited in content.

But well done to Giovanni Dennis and his production team.

Memoirs by Some Jamaican Women

About africanherbsman1967

It wasn't me
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