‘The Good Lord Bird’ Review: The Necessity of John Brown

‘The Good Lord Bird’ Review: The Necessity of John Brown

“The Good Lord Bird” has not received what you could call kid-glove treatment from Showtime. It was announced for Feb. 16 but pulled, then rescheduled for Aug. 9 and pulled again. It will finally premiere, without much fanfare, this Sunday. It’s curious treatment for a prestige mini-series based on a National Book Award-winning novel that was spearheaded by and stars one of America’s most accomplished actors.

And it’s a shame, because “The Good Lord Bird” — a seven-episode adaptation of James McBride’s 2013 novel — is fine entertainment, capturing some measure of McBride’s jaunty, irreverent humor and featuring an absorbing performance by Ethan Hawke, who created the series (with the writer Mark Richard) and plays the central role of the messianic abolitionist John Brown.

We can only speculate about the reasons for the delays (the show was certainly ready before the coronavirus hit). Maybe there was some nervousness about the story’s sometimes irreverent approach in its depictions of slavery and of the attitudes and actions of Black people, in pre-Civil War America. Perhaps, as the tumultuous events of 2020 played out, there was also some nervousness about presenting such a story in a series developed by two white men from a Black writer’s novel.

If there were any such concerns, we can see now that they were misplaced. Working with a directing and writing team that included established Black artists like Albert Hughes, Darnell Martin, Kevin Hooks and Erika L. Johnson (and with McBride as an executive producer), Hawke and Richard have if anything been too respectful of the book’s themes and plot. “The Good Lord Bird” has some dull patches in its later episodes, which probably could have been avoided if someone had been more ruthless and inventive in remaking the story for the screen.

McBride’s novel is nominally an account of the last years of Brown, the zealous crusader whose ill-fated attack on a federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859 is the comi-tragic climax of the series. But it’s told through the eyes of a young slave — named Henry, mistakenly renamed Henrietta but mostly known as Onion — who is accidentally freed and then informally adopted by Brown.

Brown, as depicted in “The Good Lord Bird,” has great sympathy for the human race but isn’t all that attentive to its individual members, and it’s symptomatic that after mishearing Henry’s name, he is unshakably convinced that the bright young boy is a girl and instructs him to wear a dress. The confusion is a practical inconvenience but also a lifesaver, as being a girl helps Henry (played by the newcomer Joshua Caleb Johnson) survive one potentially deadly situation after another.

The story is structured around Henry’s picaresque, Huck Finn-like journey, which begins in his bleak Kansas home and encompasses a lively sojourn with Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs) in upstate New York, an encounter with Harriet Tubman (Zainab Jah) on a trip to recruit fighters in Canada, and the crushing but historically pivotal debacle at Harpers Ferry, which helped bring about the Civil War.

(In addition to being a coming-of-age adventure and a smart, tart examination of racial oppression and guilty consciences on all sides, “The Good Lord Bird” is a handsome costume drama that engages with the real history of Brown’s campaign and the events at the armory, which occupy most of the final three episodes. But while many actual people and incidents are incorporated, the show takes great liberties in how it presents them, in ways that might make strict historians uneasy.)

Henry’s progress sometimes takes him away from Brown, and while Johnson has a scrappy, appealing presence, the show goes a little flat whenever Hawke isn’t onscreen. Brown is a figure whose intentions, importance and sanity are still up for debate. Hawke, accelerating without notice into passionate sermons or welling into sentimental tears, cuts through the contradictions by emphasizing a theatricality that doesn’t undermine Brown’s sincerity but is inextricable from it. Brown’s deep religious and humanist convictions, operating on his unquiet mind, force themselves out in an irresistible fervor, and Hawke puts it across with passion and without winking condescension.

Diggs is also commanding, and hilarious, making the abolitionist and 19th-century media star Douglass — in Henry’s eyes the villain of the piece for his realpolitik refusal to fully back Brown — both mesmerizingly eloquent and comically vainglorious. “The Good Lord Bird” is studded with sharp, small performances, including Wyatt Russell (of “Lodge 49”) as the chivalrous J.E.B. Stuart, Orlando Jones as an ill-fated railroad porter and Brooks Ashmanskas as a descendant of George Washington taken hostage by Brown’s raiders.

Crystal Lee Brown (“Black Lightning”) is particularly affecting in a few scenes as Sibonia, a slave whose form of passing is to pretend to be mentally disturbed. Her short arc ends, in the second episode (directed by Hooks), in one of the show’s most powerful scenes, a quiet spasm of violence set to Nina Simone’s cover of “I Shall Be Released” in which the horrors of the American situation are reflected in the varied expressions of the onlookers.

If “The Good Lord Bird” is not as explicit in its affirmations or condemnations as some viewers would like, that’s a point in its favor. It’s equally the story of Henry Shackleford and of John Brown, of Black suffering and forbearance and of white guilt and redemption; as Henry says of Brown to a white character, “He ain’t going to save us, he’s trying to save you.” The series, with verve and intelligence, gets as much of that in as it can.

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