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‘The Good Lord Bird’ tells the magnificent tale of a founding father: John Brown

The limited series is a wild, stunning ride, filled with unexpected levity

As the country continues its ongoing reckoning over race and white supremacy, white people, in overwhelming numbers, have sought out books to aid in their education about how, literally, to be anti-racists.

Now they can add a new limited series to that inspirational slate as well: The Good Lord Bird, an adaptation of James McBride’s 2013 National Book Award-winning novel of the same name, which premieres Sunday night on Showtime.

The series is a darkly comic, layered romp through the last years of John Brown’s life, leading up to his famed ride on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in the pursuit of ending slavery. It repeatedly embraces the messy sacrifices that come with such a mission for Black and white alike, illustrating its attendant moral and ethical costs rather than papering over them. Its narrator, an adolescent named Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson, who expertly treads a line between naivete and precocious wisdom) learns a valuable, heartbreaking lesson in the stakes of his decision-making while working in a Missouri brothel.

Joshua Caleb Johnson as Onion in The Good Lord Bird.

William Gray/Showtime

Brown is certainly not the first subject of an artifact of pop culture that aims to capture the true complexity of the work of abolition; in 2016, Free State of Jones introduced many to Newt Knight, a white Mississippian who abandoned the Confederate Army and absconded into the swamp and set up a community with escaped slaves. But I didn’t much care for Free State of Jones, which left too many open questions about the dynamics of Knight’s personal life and focused too much on him at the expense of the film’s Black characters, including one of his wives, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

The Good Lord Bird is different.

Onion narrates this sometimes true, sometimes imagined, and almost always exciting and spritely story. Framing it through his eyes and experiences allows The Good Lord Bird to avoid a thicket of hagiography. The series addresses the significance of that framing from its very first sentence.

“Most folks never heard of John Brown,” Onion says over the plink of a banjo as the first episode, co-written by Mark Richard and creator Ethan Hawke, opens. “If they have, all they know is he was hung for being a traitor and stirring up all kinds of trouble and starting the Civil War. Some Black folks love him, ’cause they think trouble needed to be stirred. Some Black folks hate him for thinking he was some sort of bulls— white savior.”

The light-skinned Onion (there’s a tongue-in-cheek moment when he refers to himself as a “tragic mulatto” that had me howling with laughter) meets Brown, played by Hawke as a grizzled but nevertheless impetuous, wild-eyed fount of Christian compassion, in 1856. Onion’s enslaved father is giving Brown a shave in a Kansas territory tavern owned by Dutch Henry. Brown’s a notorious figure in the territory, and when the slaveholding Henry discovers his identity, a shootout follows, claiming the life of Onion’s father.

And so Onion, as Brown comes to nickname the boy whose real name is Henry Shackleford, joins Brown’s ragtag militia of antislavery crusaders. From there, The Good Lord Bird proceeds with bravery, irreverence and wit. None of its characters, even its abolitionist ones, are shrouded in virtue, and that includes Brown, whose well-intentioned but single-minded focus on ending slavery prevents him from fully seeing one of the very people he’s seeking to help. Brown, without ever bothering to ask, assumes that the orphaned Onion is a girl whose name isn’t Henry, but Henrietta. And Onion, dubious of white people, never bothers to correct him until hours before Brown meets his death.

“I near choked calling myself a member of the opposite nature,” Onion narrates. “But lying come natural to all Negroes during slave times. For no man or woman in bondage ever prospered from saying their true thoughts to the boss. Much of colored life was an act, and Negroes who did what they was told and kept they mouth shut lived the longest.”

The Good Lord Bird doesn’t just provide historic inspiration for how white people can heed the call to anti-racist action, it’s also illustrative of the pitfalls of forgetting to listen to and consider the needs of the very people anti-racists seek to help.

The Good Lord Bird doesn’t just provide historic inspiration for how white people can heed the call to anti-racist action, it’s also illustrative of the pitfalls of forgetting to listen to and consider the needs of the very people anti-racists seek to help. Rather than demanding that its audience regard Brown as a hero and trust him implicitly because he’s on the right side of history, Brown must earn that trust and reverence from Onion, and from us, too.

Brown is usually dirty, smelly and disheveled, and he looks it, even when he’s had a bath, in contrast with one of his most stately, learned and trusted friends, Frederick Douglass. As Douglass, Daveed Diggs cuts a handsome, well-dressed, sensible figure who’s also a charismatic orator. He’s the Barack Obama to Brown’s Joe Biden, but he’s also a zaddy who ignites the loins of women of all races — Douglass’ ease with the ladies provides one of the best sight gags in the whole series.

Daveed Diggs as Frederick Douglass in The Good Lord Bird.

William Gray/Showtime

Though Hawke plays Brown as crazed but lucky, it’s a performance that’s tempered by humility. The show introduces Douglass when Brown and Onion seek him out when Douglass is giving one of his famed speeches. As usual, Brown forgets to think before he acts, and Douglass shoos him out of the crowd, muttering with exasperation, “lunatic.”

More often than not, life on the lam with Brown is rough. But in this world of limited choices, meager provisions and hard, violent nomadic living, it’s not just a hero that emerges, but a new type of founding father, one of many midwives in the country’s history aiming to bring life to full Black citizenship.

Such a development is right on time.

Recently, the Donald Trump administration announced a (largely cosmetic, seeing as the federal government has no jurisdiction over school curricula) 1776 Commission aimed at instituting what it calls “patriotic education.” It’s a reactionary and ultimately lost cause for historical revisionism, fueled by its position that the New York Times’ 1619 Project should be reviled and buried. A large part of this argument is cast around the idea that telling the truth about the country’s founders — who, along with being inspired by the Enlightenment, were also racists who committed rape, genocide and land thievery — is somehow unpatriotic. The 1776 Commission’s tacit implication is that the founders’ best ideas can only be sullied by remembering their worst atrocities. And the need to preserve this image in bubble wrap coincides with a need to conflate whiteness with goodness and superiority.

But if ever there was a figure who complicates that approach to laundering history, it is Brown. He was a white man willing to look at his country and his slaveholding countrymen through clear eyes and find both wanting. And then he did something about it: He led armed insurrections in the pursuit of liberating Black people.

An argument exists for expanding who is crowned as a founding father beyond the white men who authored the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers — you know, the guys, many of them slaveholders, who appear on our currency. In the wake of his death this summer, admirers of Rep. John Lewis called for him to be remembered as such. The same honor should be bestowed upon Brown, a flawed but righteous Christian soldier, fueled by faith and a fearless pursuit of freedom and justice for all. The Good Lord Bird helps us see why.

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.