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‘The Good Lord Bird’ episode three: ‘Mister Fred’

Sexy Frederick Douglass is ‘King of the Negroes’

You would think, in a show that features a lead character who earnestly converses with rabbits and turtles — as John Brown does in The Good Lord Bird — that the actor who plays said character is the one who’s probably having the most fun.

It’s a reasonable conclusion to draw, with Ethan Hawke playing the “nuttier than a squirrel turd” abolitionist Brown as a man whose spittle collects in his beard as he preaches about the evils of slavery, but who’s also a bit of a space cadet.

But! There is the precious gift of Frederick Douglass, as depicted by Daveed Diggs, introduced in episode three: Mister Fred.

With Brown wanted by the governor of Kansas and U.S. president James Buchanan, and sizable bounties placed upon his head, he realizes it’s time to head east for strategy, sustenance and resources. And he can find it in Rochester, New York, at the home of Douglass, or as Brown calls him, the “King of the Negroes.”

And live like a king Douglass does. He’s got servants, a spacious home filled with an assortment of life’s finer things — and two … I’m just going to call them sister-wife people.

From left to right: Lex King as Ottilie, Joshua Caleb Johnson as Onion and Tamberla Perry as Anna Douglass in The Good Lord Bird.

William Gray/Showtime

Before we go any further, I’m going to implore you to do two things: 1) read Douglass’ own writing, as well as David Blight’s biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, and Eric Foner’s book about Reconstruction, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution. And 2) remember that The Good Lord Bird is historical fiction.

Back to Douglass’ sister-wife people, Anna (Tamberla Perry), who is Black, and Ottilie (Lex King), who is a white European immigrant. It’s not that Douglass is living his best life in an interracial throuple in 1850s America that makes this episode such a pleasure to watch, but the ways Anna and Ottilie vie for his affections with well-worn, but still effective ego-stroking.

The actual Douglass was one of the most photographed men of his time, and he was also well traveled within the United States, rivaling Mark Twain. All of this provides fodder for episode writers Jeff Augustin and Erika Johnson (and novelist James McBride, within the show’s source material) to create a character who likes to enjoy his life as a free man, and in particular, as a free man who knew what it was like to be enslaved.

Upon arriving in Rochester with Brown, Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson) is marveling at the city’s much-developed infrastructure and quality of life. Wide cobblestone streets! Free Black people dressed in fine clothes, not rags! And Mr. Fred, as Onion makes the mistake of addressing Douglass, seems to be the most respected and desired man in town. Douglass knows it, and he enjoys it, too.

The Good Lord Bird introduces Douglass as he’s giving a speech. He’s standing on a pedestal behind a lectern, and the white women in the audience look upon him with the unmistakable gaze of fangirls. Onion, naturally, is agog. The Good Lord Bird is a straight-ahead series, but it also knows how to have fun with details and sight gags (Brown the philistine, combing his mustache with a fork!) while making larger points using structure. When the Pottawatomie Rifles are still in the Midwest, Brown runs into a group of federal agents who are in charge of restoring some order to the lawlessness of Missouri and the Kansas territory and the small-scale civil battles that have broken out there over slavery.

Agent John Walker (Wyatt Russell), sitting astride a horse, is the one who warns Brown of the bounty on his head. In the scene, Brown makes an impassioned entreaty to Walker about seeing Black people as equals, because they are equals in the eyes of God. He points to Broadnax (McKinley Belcher III), standing on the ground beside him, as an example, as Onion and Bob (Hubert Point-Du Jour) watch from a few feet away. On the train headed east, a conductor demands that Onion leave the car where he’s sitting with Brown because the train segregates its passengers. Again, Brown steps in to defend and reassert the humanity of the Black person with him.

From left to right: McKinley Belcher III as Broadnax, Wyatt Russell as John Walker, Ethan Hawke as John Brown and Mo Brings Plenty as Ottawa Jones in The Good Lord Bird.

William Gray/Showtime

Rochester is the first place Onion has been in his life where he doesn’t have to depend on the benevolence of white people to be seen and treated as a person himself. Not only that, but in the Douglass household, Frederick reigns not just as “King of the Negroes,” but king of his own castle (a circumstance of which Anna and Ottilie are happy to remind him). As Onion moves further east with Brown, he gets a taste of what it means to be free, as opposed to not being enslaved.

And there is an enormous difference, as Onion laid out with his snake analogy in episode two. That is what Diggs, for all the fun he’s having, embodies as Douglass: freedom to be a preening, sexy peacock of a man, freedom to be an eccentric writer who enjoys a heavy pour of cognac and an audience for his inebriated ramblings, freedom to tell a white man “no,” freedom to build a tunnel leading to Canada that begins in his cellar.

At the end of the episode, Onion, finally well-fed, clothed and somewhat trained in the ways of civilized folk, has a choice to make: Will he stay in this life of comfort and make his own way in Rochester? Or will he continue with Brown? Onion goes with Brown, and I have to believe that in part it’s because he realizes that no one is free until everyone is.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.