The story of John Brown, told with righteous fury.
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.