John Brown was the first man executed for treason in American history. Fittingly, the American institution he was actually showing disloyalty to was slavery. The practice so deeply tied to the foundation of the United States so offended him that he raided Harpers Ferry, forged a new vision for the government, and put together a plan to ruin the South’s economy through liberation. Showtime’s seven-episode limited series The Good Lord Bird, from Blumhouse Television and based on James McBride’s National Book Award winner of the same name, is a rollicking ride to the Civil War dominated by Ethan Hawke, dark humor, and mixed successes.
Plenty of amusing historical asides (like the existence of an anti-slavery coalition with the superheroic name of the Secret Six) find their way into the amusing series, razzling and dazzling the scrappy tale with ornaments. It’s the kind of tone that, if it wasn’t at least partially backed up by history, would have the Coen brothers and Tarantino wrestling over what kind of gag to put in next. Sometimes it’s too much, like an overseasoned meal, with chapter titles popping up or on-the-nose musical cues overwhelming the screen.
But the pivotal element of The Good Lord Bird is its appraisal of Brown, and Hawke’s subsequent portrayal. Brown’s a colorful character who’s gone through the historical wringer. The hardline, violent activist was certain that the South wouldn’t give up slavery without a fight. He was right. That means that racist Southerners who spent decades pushing the “Lost Cause” and other revisionist narratives to the Civil War really, really weren’t fans of Brown. Depictions of him painted him as a maniac, a zealot, or otherwise “off”—descriptors that helped further split the assessment of the liberator down party lines.
So how do you capture eccentricities and flaws in a funny caricature without feeding into a damaging depiction of a man whose intense desire to end slavery has been conflated with madness? Well, if you’re The Good Lord Bird, which clearly isn’t here for historiography, you don’t. The series, co-created (and partially written) by Hawke with Mark Richard (who co-wrote its entirety), gives us a Bible-thumper whose abolitionist idealism is just another stubborn aspect of an over-the-top fervor. His odd obsessions and personal blinders—shown initially by his insistent belief that Henry Shackleford AKA Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson) is actually a girl named Henrietta—turn the anti-slavery revolutionary into a bumbling zealot…who despite it all manages to be pretty goddamn righteous.
Through the eyes of the fictional Henry (and Johnson’s fine fish-out-of-water performance that’s strange gender politics deserve an essay of their own to unpack) we get a deadpan, on-the-ground observation of Brown and his antics. But the series’ more trenchant criticisms don’t rely on silliness. Brown and other white abolitionists, for all their good intentions, speak over and/or assume the desires of Black people. Tying condescension and paternalism to religious fervor isn’t a hard ask, especially when racism is involved. But that’s not crazy. That’s just white liberalism. A few touching scenes in the finale gives agency and oomph to the cause beyond Brown’s devotion.
Those that stayed awake in U.S. History know the miniseries was always going to end in tragedy, and it’s a transition the series mostly pulls off on the strength of the direction and Hawke’s emotionally all-encompassing commitment. And that performance is THE selling point for the show.
Barn-burning, spittle-slinging Hawke—who is somewhere between his desperate, radical turn in First Reformed and his confident cowboy in The Magnificent Seven—runs the already stylish limited series. He blows through scenes like a cannon shot; he’s a fury of sound and saliva, crafting warm charisma through pure power, speed, and volume. Single-minded and ferocious as he seeks justice, it sure is satisfying to watch Brown obliterate some slavers just as Hawke obliterates his own vocal cords. Give this man his Emmy.
A few winning side performances also manage to sneak in—Wyatt Russell, who belongs in a Civil War beard, Orlando Jones’ intense railmaster, and Daveed Diggs’ schlemazel Frederick Douglass—but the episodes without Hawke are like that Simpsons gag where we’re all asking “Where’s Poochie?” The show can also have a heavy hand when doling out its harsh and effective depictions of slavery, while its over-reliance on long-take speeches and paragraphs of voiceover wears a little thin as it goes on. These flaws and others, like its hiccuping tone, are more noticeable in Hawkeless middle sections that come after its engrossing front-loaded action.
Exciting direction (spearheaded by a pilot helmed by Albert Hughes, but with plenty of talent as the series goes on) flops us down in the dirty, scrappy forest alongside Brown’s Merry Men-esque crusaders. Green and strange and full of characters, the lush and odd image is always one bursting with life and motion. Rousing gospel and blues kick the dust out of the period aesthetics and invigorate the already modern camerawork. In fact, the series is extremely pretty in its compositions and grime, with pops of color (not least of which are Hawke’s baby blues) acting like little godly blessings among the sinful slop of America’s Sodom. It loves nature like the transcendentalists that loved Brown, and uses it to depict the potential of the cruel country.
The Good Lord Bird is funny and strange, often entertaining and rarely self-serious. Even it’s wild-man depiction of Brown leaves us with a message of hope. Think of it as a slightly more sober, slightly less accurate Drunk History saga focused on one of America’s most singular ideologues. The show is a romp through an ostensibly unrompable subject that more often than not actually pulls it off, aside from its dominating firework display showcase for Hawke. Watchmen may have reminded the TV-watching public about the Tulsa Massacre through narrative craft, but The Good Lord Bird might inspire the same kind of “Holy shit, what?” historical investigation by sheer force of will—and that’s something John Brown would definitely approve of.
The Good Lord Bird premieres Sunday, October 4th on Showtime.
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.
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