An­gry Bird

The story of John Brown, told with right­eous fury.

New York Magazine - - CRIT­ICS - TV / MATT ZOLLER SEITZ

ethan hawke’s rage-filled croak as abo­li­tion­ist John Brown in The Good Lord Bird is bib­li­cally awesome. It’s not just deeper and more grav­elly than his ev­ery­day speak­ing voice; it’s a geyser of fury that seems to erupt from his in­nards like de­monic ec­to­plasm es­cap­ing the body of a pos­sessed soul in a hor­ror movie. When Brown launches into a ser­mon aimed at slav­ery-de­fend­ing sin­ners, his hands grip the butts of his six-shoot­ers, and his face and body knot up and twist like a hang­man’s rope. His veins throb. Spit­tle flies. His eye color seems to darken. None of this is a spe­cial ef­fect. It’s Hawke feel­ing Brown feel­ing the

pres­ence of the Holy Spirit and sound­ing like old Nick Nolte try­ing to get through an an­gry mono­logue while be­ing fed into a wood chip­per.

Of course, Brown is also, to quote one of the char­ac­ters, “nut­tier than a squir­rel turd.” That’s not a di­ag­no­sis or ev­i­dence of Brown be­ing wrong on the mer­its. It’s a per­sonal ob­ser­va­tion that hap­pens to be ac­cu­rate. But to its credit, the seven-part Show­time minis­eries about Brown and his fol­low­ers never re­duces him to a med­i­cal bi­nary. It treats his un­hing­ing from white Amer­ica’s norms as a break from moral ab­nor­mal­ity, and it leaves room for the pos­si­bil­ity that, as more than one ac­count has sug­gested, John Brown sim­ply woke up one morn­ing hear­ing the voice of God ex­hort­ing him to free the slaves—even if it meant killing any man or woman who sup­ported slav­ery—per­haps be­cause the en­tire coun­try had been mad for cen­turies, and ter­ror­iz­ing it was the only way to bring it to its senses. Brown led a makeshift army into a guer­rilla war for Amer­ica’s soul (in this telling, the racially mixed group in­cludes his own adult sons, nu­mer­ous freed slaves, a Na­tive Amer­i­can, and a Jew), and by the time he raided Harpers Ferry in 1859, the en­tire coun­try had fig­ured out that a peace­ful res­o­lu­tion was im­pos­si­ble.

Charis­matic, ter­ri­fy­ing, and weird as he is, Brown is a glo­ri­fied sup­port­ing char­ac­ter in The Good Lord Bird—and that’s a big part of what pre­vents the se­ries from be­com­ing an es­pe­cially bloody and dour ver­sion of a white-sav­ior nar­ra­tive. The story is told through the eyes of an ed­u­cated teenage slave (Joshua Caleb Johnson), who dresses like a girl at Brown’s re­quest (for his own pro­tec­tion, sup­pos­edly) and is given the nick­name Onion. Onion’s voice-over nar­ra­tion is at once in­no­cent and know­ing. It de­picts the pre­lude to the Civil War, and the phys­i­cal and emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ences of servi­tude and op­pres­sion, from a faintly hope­ful but mostly cyn­i­cal-to-re­signed per­spec­tive drawn from gen­er­a­tions of ev­i­dence that no mat­ter what crazi­ness white folks get them­selves up to, daily life for Black folks won’t change too much, so you’d bet­ter take your joy where you can get it.

The ef­fect is a bit like a time ma­chine, a por­tal to fuller un­der­stand­ing: not just what hap­pened but where it led and what else it helped cre­ate. More so than other fic­tion­al­ized retellings of Brown’s cru­sade—in­clud­ing the nov­els Cloud­split­ter and Rais­ing Holy Hell—The Good Lord Bird, book and se­ries, seems to speak both of and for the present and to view the Black and the white char­ac­ters as equal par­tic­i­pants in his­tory, even though one group legally had ab­so­lute power over the other.

Faith­fully adapted by ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers Hawke and poet-nov­el­ist Mark Richard from James McBride’s Na­tional Book Award–win­ning 2013 novel, the se­ries draws equally on two schools of sto­ry­telling: the raunchy, nasty, pi­caresque comic epic and the me­an­der­ing, pot-scented Western. The show’s screen­writ­ers and di­rec­tors (in­clud­ing Al­bert Hughes, Dar­nell Martin, and Kevin Hooks) paint a sav­age, of­ten cor­ro­sively funny por­trait of the bat­tle be­tween pro- and anti-slav­ery forces in so-called Bleed­ing Kansas in the years be­fore the Civil War, with ev­ery­one who hasn’t picked a side and taken up arms get­ting torn up by his­tory’s thresher.

Onion meets Brown in the open­ing scene of the se­ries, a vi­o­lent con­fronta­tion be­tween Brown and a slaver (David Morse) that ends with Onion be­ing or­phaned and folded into the abo­li­tion­ist’s trav­el­ing mili­tia. Brown presents him­self to Onion as a men­tor and fa­ther fig­ure, but that’s like find­ing out Cap­tain Ahab wants to adopt you. Trau­ma­tized and cowed as he is, Onion finds Brown amus­ing and pa­thetic as of­ten as he finds him hor­ri­fy­ing and thrilling. By the sec­ond episode—which lets us spend time with Onion on his own as he takes a job in a brothel and se­cretly teaches the Black madam how to read— Onion starts to ma­ture quickly, de­vel­op­ing a bleaker out­look and a sur­vival sense that flirts with ni­hilism.

Brown’s fol­low­ers and sons aren’t gung ho about him all the time ei­ther. As Onion in­forms us, Brown’s acolytes come and go, their ranks chang­ing out al­most ev­ery few months, be­cause they get tired of the blood­shed, start feel­ing home­sick, or fig­ure they’d bet­ter cut out at some point, oth­er­wise Brown will get them killed. Also, Brown’s speeches go on for hours.

Brown was some­times known as God’s

An­gry Man (as per the ti­tle of a 1932 novel about Brown by Leonard Ehrlich). But while The Good Lord Bird teases the pos­si­bil­ity that God is in­deed on his side, or an­i­mat­ing his rage, it has a Coen-es­que sense of when to stop giv­ing out clues and err on the side of mys­tery. There are mo­ments in early episodes when Brown is saved from death not by any in­nate skill but be­cause his foes are not as smart as they think or have missed a cru­cial piece of in­for­ma­tion that might have pre­vented them from dy­ing stupidly. “God’s Lucky Man” might have been just as apt a de­scrip­tion, though the end of Brown’s life cuts against that ad­jec­tive. He’s cer­tainly more blessed than Black abo­li­tion­ists would be un­der sim­i­lar (armed) cir­cum­stances. When Lieu­tenant Colonel J.E.B. Stu­art (Wy­att Rus­sell), a fu­ture Civil War leg­end, comes to him alone to warn him to leave Kansas or be killed, it’s hard to imag­ine John’s idol, the Black abo­li­tion­ist Fred­er­ick Dou­glass (played by Daveed Diggs in full-throated preacher mode), be­ing treated with sim­i­lar care and un­der­stand­ing if he had worn re­volvers on his hips. The se­ries isn’t just aware of the irony; it stages its scenes in a way that leads us to con­nect what hap­pened back then with what’s hap­pen­ing on Amer­i­can streets right now.

The sound­track, which in­cludes a num­ber of 20th- and 21st-cen­tury record­ings of blues, gospel, rhythm-and-blues, and soul songs, helps a great deal in es­tab­lish­ing a his­tor­i­cal through line. To some de­gree, all of the rep­re­sented gen­res are rooted in the lived ex­pe­ri­ence of in­equal­ity and the dif­fi­culty (and ne­ces­sity) of try­ing to ei­ther rise above that or mo­men­tar­ily es­cape it through sin as well as sal­va­tion. When mu­sic and im­agery join forces, The Good Lord Bird speaks to the present as well as the past. This is a his­tor­i­cal epic of real vi­sion.

Ethan Hawke and Joshua Caleb Johnson.

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