When a Very Important Actor takes on the role of a Very Important Historical Figure, there are certain expectations. There will be speeches, and formative trauma, and tears, and an understanding wife. There will not be much humor. Hence why the satirical biopic Walk Hard remains so beloved more than a decade after its release: While it’s specifically a riff on the rock-star origin story, the movie spoofs a self-seriousness endemic to all awards-chasing hagiographies. And “Academy Award nominee Ethan Hawke as radical abolitionist John Brown” certainly sounds like an awards-chasing hagiography.
But The Good Lord Bird is not what you’d expect.
The new Showtime miniseries, which premiered on Sunday, will come as less of a surprise to fans of either James McBride’s 2013 novel, from which it was adapted, or Blaze, Hawke’s last foray into the biopic space as a director (rather than cocreator and star). Hawke’s collaboration with writer Mark Richard, premiere director Albert Hughes, and a sprawling cast, is a faithful translation of McBride’s book—in that neither of them are a conventionally dutiful tribute to Brown.
He’s not the protagonist, for one. Like the novel, The Good Lord Bird is told in the first person, the person in question being a young enslaved person named Henry Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson). Caught in the crossfire between Brown and a pro-slavery contingent in 1850s Missouri, Henry is orphaned, mistaken by Brown for a girl named Henrietta, and adopted into the ragtag abolitionist militia known as the Pottawatomie Rifles. (Think the merry band of thieves to Brown’s Robin Hood, or more recently, the Brotherhood Without Banners to Henry’s different sort of androgynous teen.) To celebrate Henry’s newfound freedom—though as a poor fugitive, Henry feels about as free as he does female—Brown gifts his new charge a dress made for his own daughter. Henry is nicknamed “Onion” after eating Brown’s longtime lucky charm, and uses his gender expression like camouflage, tagging along on a journey through an America on the precipice of war.
Henry’s no fawning acolyte. Understandably, he’s not bending over backward to thank the white man who just got his father shot and acted like it was a favor. Instead, he’s bemused by this frenzied zealot whose eyes are wilder than his facial hair. Brown considers himself on a mission from God to end what he calls “the infernal institution,” and he’s decided it’s worth making Kansas bleed to do it. He’s a man possessed, unbothered with such trivial details like movement politics or his comrades’ gender. He looks like the halfway point between Rasputin and Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse. He is, Henry concludes via drawling voice-over, “nuttier than a squirrel turd.”
It’s a laugh-out-loud line, one of many. Hawke himself was surprised by McBride’s tone, which turns the pre–Civil War U.S. into a backdrop for high comedy without downplaying its barbarity. “My wife would say, ‘What are you laughing at?’” the actor told Rolling Stone. “I’d say, ‘This book.’ She’d go, ‘Isn’t it about John Brown? How is that funny?’ And I’m like ‘I don’t know, but it is!’” Brown himself was deadly serious, a man who gave his life for the cause after his famous raid on Harpers Ferry. What The Good Lord Bird understands is that what feels righteous to some looks preposterous to others, including their own allies. It doesn’t make him any less right—just more human and interesting than a talking Wikipedia page.
As a book, The Good Lord Bird was frequently compared to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a cross-country coming-of-age story tracing America’s racial fault lines. The show retains those parallels, but its context puts it in the newer class of tongue-in-cheek historical comedies, from Dickinson to The Great. The Good Lord Bird isn’t quite as flagrant in its anachronism; its music cues tend to be gospel and blues (the opening credits are set to a rendition of “Come on Children Let’s Sing”) rather than full-blown rap or pop. Still, it’s irreverent in a way that’s both disarming and familiar. Harriet Tubman still gets the saintly treatment, but Daveed Diggs has a wonderful supporting turn as Frederick Douglass, a fame-hungry peacock in the 19th-century version of a throuple. Douglass remains the inspiring orator most of us know from our history book, just cut down a few sizes from myth to man.
The Good Lord Bird may be written from a 2020 vantage, but its version of the past doesn’t feel forcibly retrofit—if anything’s ever-present in American culture, it’s systemic racism. One of the central themes is the tension between Douglass’s avid institutionalist, his following built on appealing to the conscience of establishment whites in the North, and Brown’s violent radical. Brown is a force-the-contradictions type, attempting to hasten the oncoming of the inevitable Civil War with a series of fatal confrontations. Douglass worries Brown’s tactics are a turnoff to potential allies. The internet being what it is, a take comparing Brown to Bernie Sanders is all but inevitable, given the shared taste for fiery rhetoric and unkempt hairstyles. Sanders, of course, is not an armed insurrectionist, and neither he nor Brown invented the dichotomy of reformist and revolutionary.
The Good Lord Bird is partly the story of white abolitionists—Brown, his sons, and his teenage daughter Annie, played by Hawke’s real-life scion Maya—but it’s mostly the story of actual enslaved people, which is a rarity in true stories about Great Men of History. In his travels, Henry encounters a butler with a long-buried rebellious streak; a sardonic wagon driver named Bob; two sisters plotting their revenge; and plenty others who understandably want nothing to do with brewing trouble. His ability to read and write, not to mention his liberation, gives Henry access to spaces other enslaved people don’t have. His place in the driver’s seat of the narrative allows for perspectives that a story centered on Brown alone likely couldn’t feature.
For one, there’s the obvious critique of Brown, one Henry acknowledges in his opening voice-over. A man who took up arms to free the oppressed is the literal definition of a white savior, and The Good Lord Bird makes space for that skepticism without invalidating Brown’s moral clarity. “Seems like everybody gets to tell a speech about the Negro except the Negro,” one character scoffs. Brown could be rash and misguided, often lethally so. He’s also undoubtedly on the right side of history, so much so that he seemed insane to those around him, and in fact partly was. In both his performance and the show it’s a part of, Hawke pulls off a magical balancing act. When his Brown starts yet another monologue at a full scream, introducing himself as “Osawatomie John Brown” and urging his audience to “wake up,” you’re inclined to roll your eyes, or even laugh. But you’re also awestruck, certainly more so than if The Good Lord Bird had made him out to be a saint.
An earlier version of this piece misstated the director for the premiere episode.