The Good Lord Bird is an unusual thing: a smart, starry treatment of serious historical events that manages to retain a sense of humour without losing heart or gravitas. It’s a seven-part adaptation of James McBride’s 2013 National Book Award-winning novel, which fictionalises the life of the abolitionist John Brown during the “Bleeding Kansas” era of unrest that would culminate in the American Civil War. Brown was a wild and holy man, who trained as a priest before having an unusual epiphany for a would-be man of the cloth, when he seemingly woke up one morning convinced that slavery would not be ended with speeches and prayers alone, and took up arms instead.
McBride co-produces, with Mark Richard and Ethan Hawke. The latter stars, too, setting about the role of Brown with gusto. You would not easily mistake Brown for the Europe-loving softboy Hawke plays in Before Sunset. Like another troubled American social justice vigilante, Batman, he speaks in a gruff rasp and is prone to getting carried away in the administration of physical encouragement. Before important decisions Brown retreats with his Bible to commune with the holy spirit. His militia includes his own sons, a Native American, and a Jew, along with freed slaves who are up for the fight. The bird of the title is said to bring good luck, and they’ll need it in a Kansas Territory where life is cheap and everyone is a potential enemy.
At the start of the first episode, Brown meets a young, recently orphaned boy, Henry Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson). He mistakes him for a girl, gives him a dress and nicknames him Onion, after the boy, thinking it’s what Brown wants, accidentally eats an allium the elder has been carrying around as a good-luck charm. It’s the first glimpse we get of the humour, which at times verges on the slapstick, that breaks up the random acts of violence.
The story is Shackleford’s as much as it’s Brown’s, and the boy narrates the action with a knowing tone that is one of several nods to the present day. Johnson and Hawke are well matched, the younger man calm and sensible where the older is increasingly possessed. This isn’t a history to be enjoyed simply on its own terms, but a fiction that looks 2020 straight in the eye. Chapter headings appear in a jaunty, cartoonish font that calls Tarantino to mind. There’s a fatalism to many of the black characters, who are forced to live at the behest of (often very stupid) white people even after they have been freed. It takes Shackleford a while to realise that traipsing around after this new dogmatic old white bloke might offer greater possibilities than his previous situation, which looked similar in many ways.
The viewer’s knowledge that Brown was correct in his assessment of the historical situation is offset by his increasing fervour. Any sufficiently absolute belief is indistinguishable from madness. The Good Lord Bird is a challenge, which isn’t to say that it isn’t good fun, it just delights in confounding our expectations of genre, form and racial dynamics. There are ways to make a point without preaching.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies