The Good Lord Bird begins with the end of its story, with abolitionist John Brown awaiting his execution. After a failed raid at an Army weapons depot, he has been sentenced to hanging. He looks out into the crowd that has gathered below the gallows with his wild passionate eyes and says “what a beautiful country.”
The Jason Blum (Get Out, Whiplash) produced adaption of the novel (winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 2013) by James McBride follows the last years of controversial and divisive abolitionist John Brown leading up to the American Civil War. The show is a quasi-historical take on Brown and his ideals and journey. The line between fact and myth is blurred and acknowledged by the show saying “This is a true story...some of these things happened.”
The Good Lord Bird delivers a timely and super entertaining drama that doesn’t fall short of its big ideas.
Ethan Hawke (Training Day, First Reformed) doesn’t play John Brown as much as he transforms into him. He is a bearded liver-spotted fanatic. His eyes are wild and filled with his zealous determination to accomplish his mission of abolition of slavery by any means necessary. He recites scripture and prays like a rabid preacher, ready to burst out and proclaim his cause at any moment’s notice. He can be wrathful with righteous fury in one moment and extremely chilling in the next. Brown has a dogged and absolute belief in the sinfulness of slavery and will do anything to fight it. He believes the complicity white Americans have in its practice destroys the very premise upon which America was founded.
Brown is the chaotic force of the story but the real protagonist is Onion played by Joshua Caleb Johnson. Henry Shackleford nicknamed Onion by Brown and his group of abolitionist soldiers was a slave who after his father was killed joined Brown. Brown assumes Onion is a girl because he misheard Onion’s father believing he called him Henrietta before he was killed. Onion goes with it, donning a dress and playing the part. In the beginning, Onion views himself as a captive even after being told he was free time and time again. Onion feels it is safer pretending to be a girl and doing whatever this crazy white man says to do.
Onion becomes a passenger on a runaway train.
Onion and Brown eventually come to an understanding that he hasn’t really been free even though Brown took him away and told him he was free. Onion never had any agency about his fate and followed John for survival and did what he was told. John recognizes how ignorant he had been with Onion and gives him the respect he deserves.
Onion sees Johns’ failures and short-sightedness firsthand, but also his conviction and unwavering commitment to abolition. He becomes a true believer in Brown’s cause and decides to see it through the end.
John Brown could have easily been portrayed as the familiar and much-maligned white savior, the all-knowing, perfect, and infallible protagonist who is the man to lead black people to freedom — but he isn’t. Brown is complicated. The way Black characters view him varies, some view what he is doing as necessary and some see him as some white savior who’s just stirring up trouble. Brown continuously fails in battle and strategy. He fails to get the support he needs, he continually makes bad decisions, and he’s impulsive. He gives all the money he raised for supplies and his army away. He also sends people on secret missions who can’t keep secrets.
At one point he lectures Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs: Hamilton, Snowpiercer) in an attempt to win his support that black people have to be willing to die for freedom and once they see that their revolution will spread like wildfire. Douglass responds by asking how someone who has never been in bondage tells someone that has what they have to be willing to do for their freedom.
Brown considers himself as only a vessel for doing God’s work which he sees as freeing the enslaved Black people of America, nothing more. His mission is all that matters to him and he is uncompromising in his methods. He wants to “purge the sin of slavery from this land with blood,” no matter the cost.
The show could have been a dark affair, but it’s given levity and life. The odd-couple nature of Onion and Brown’s relationship is great fun. The best running gag throughout is how every white character is fooled by Onion’s disguise and almost every black character immediately knows he isn’t a girl. The violence is often comedic as it is graphic.
Overall The Good Lord Bird has powerful moments and a relevant story with great characters. It plays fast and loose with fact and myth keeping its subject matter at the forefront to make bold statements and create intrigue. The subject matter isn’t pacified and its message is clear, America can’t move forward or be what it claims to be without a reckoning of its sins and failures.
John Brown wanted to be the spark that lit the fire of revolution and freedom. He failed in aspects but he succeeded in passing on his ideals. If this year has taught us anything it’s that the fire for change is still burning and the fight is not over.
The Good Lord Bird can be seen on Showtime.