The Good Lord Bird review: Ethan Hawke unshackles American history’s darkest chapter in fiery abolitionist Western

There's a certain chaos to The Good Lord Bird's version of history, because it's a history full of shameful pages. It can't ever be erased. If all the demonstrations and unrest this year teach us anything, it's that America's present remains as chaotic as its past.

Prahlad Srihari November 22, 2020 09:28:19 IST
The Good Lord Bird review: Ethan Hawke unshackles American history’s darkest chapter in fiery abolitionist Western

Ethan Hawke as John Brown

Ralph Waldo Emerson called him a “saint.” Abraham Lincoln thought he was “insane.” Perhaps, the truth to John Brown's legend lies somewhere in between. That's exactly what The Good Lord Bird brings to light. The miniseries, adapted from the eponymous novel by James McBride, seeks the man behind the myth — as seen through the eyes of a young slave who becomes tangled with Brown's motley group of abolitionists.

Brown’s bipolarity plays into Ethan Hawke's portrayal. Bible in one hand and rifle in the other, Brown used both as weapons of persuasion, convincing ordinary Americans to fight the good fight. When he's inspiring his compatriots with flowery rhetoric and righteous indignation, the words ring in your ears. The preachifying is essential to the show's allure. In these moments, the camera feels attuned to Hawke's probing gaze, capturing the fire and fury behind each moment and every thought, whispered or roared. He can make you smile one moment, shudder the next.

Hawke's Brown is of course not the protagonist here. It's Henry Shackleford, a fictional enslaved boy played by Joshua Caleb Johnson and whose voice-over narration accompanies us throughout the series. Their paths cross in a salon, where Henry's father is attending to the bewhiskered Brown, whose scripture spouting irks the other patrons. On discovering Brown's identity, the salon owner — a pro-slaver named Dutch Henry Sherman — fires a threat. A shootout ensues, and Henry's father is killed in the crossfire. Brown escapes, taking Henry along with him on his righteous odyssey.

We know how this odyssey ends because we see it in the opening scene: Brown was hanged for his attempted armed insurrection at Harpers Ferry. The subsequent news coverage of his raid, his trial, and his hanging was one of the definitive catalysts that accelerated the American Civil War, and the end of slavery. But the show doesn't treat it as the genesis or coda of a revolution, but a checkpoint in an ongoing one. Because Brown's revolution continues in spirit. We saw it this year as protestors took down the statues of Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Ulysses S. Grant. Indeed, many of the country's founding fathers denounced slavery only in theory (“All men are created equal”), and tolerated — even endorsed — it in practice. Calling out this hypocrisy, as John Brown forcefully did, was the first act of the revolution. The toppling of such figures, glorified in granite, is just another. 

The Good Lord Bird review Ethan Hawke unshackles American historys darkest chapter in fiery abolitionist Western

Joshua Caleb Johnson as Henry Shackleford aka Henrietta aka Onion

The showrunners would rather sensationalise the evils of slavery, than sanitise them at the risk of minimising Black suffering. The wide shots and the earthy tones in the day capture a sense of period and place, as slaves and abolitionists hide out in the woods. The tension rises with the perils of night-time, with the threat of running into hostile Southerners. Brown’s revolution is soundtracked to some infectious gospel and soul anthems, starting with Mahalia Jackson's “Come On Children, Let's Sing” in the opening credits.

Though Brown was certainly a decisive figure in the anti-slavery movement, he was also a divisive one among Black people in Antebellum South. As Henry describes it, “Some Black folks love him because they think trouble needed to be stirred. Some Black folks hate him for thinking he was some kind of bullshit white saviour.” Henry's first-hand account avoids the trap of Hollywood's often specious narratives that act as nothing more than tributes to white saviours. By placing a victim of slavery at the centre of the story, it judges Brown's actions in Henry's context. It is important to note that though Brown sees himself as Henry's liberator, Henry sees himself as a prisoner to a new master.

In fact, for a large part of the story, Henry feels like a passenger on Brown's crusade. He doesn't gain autonomy until a touching scene (in Episode 4), where Brown apologises for completely upending his life, starting with the inadvertent role he played in his father's death. “You’re living a life without choice. I come along and thrust freedom upon you without giving you a deciding vote in which way your life road went,” he says, before realising the hard truth. “I’m no better than Dutch Henry.” It's here that Henry stops being a reluctant participant and begins to take a more active role in Brown's plans. 

The innocence and fortitude of Henry, both conspirator and victim of Brown's grand plan, brings a humorous odd couple dynamic. It even helps alleviate the seriousness of the subject matter. Brown and his troops mistake Henry for a girl and dress her as such, after Brown mishears the last words of Henry's father — “Henry ain’t a” for “Henrietta”. A penniless orphan and a slave in Bleeding Kansas, Henry plays along and joins their ranks to survive. As he snidely puts it, “Whatever he believed, he believed. It didn't matter if it was true or not. He was a real white man.” 

The Good Lord Bird review Ethan Hawke unshackles American historys darkest chapter in fiery abolitionist Western

Ethan Hawke and Joshua Caleb Johnson

Henry's misgendering becomes a running gag. Almost every Black person Henry encounters instantly recognises him as a boy. In contrast, none of the White people (slaver or abolitionist) see him for who he really is. It reflects how white people's perception of Black people rarely comports with reality. When Henry unwittingly bites into Brown's lucky charm, a 14-month-old onion, he takes over the role, becoming a mascot of sorts for the cause, and earns the nickname “Onion”. If Black people are not mascots, they’re symbols or stories. For instance, Brown's self-delusion is called out when he brings Henry on a trip to raise funds for his Harpers Ferry raid. He encourages Henry to describe in detail all the deprivation, starvation and whipping he experienced as Dutch Henry's slave. Henry gives him a reality check: “Dutch ain't never whipped me. And fed me good. Never been cold before sleeping in the woods with you and the boys. And I ain't never been shot at till I met you. Truth be told, I ain't seen a person murdered till I met you.” In response, Brown advises Henry not to mention any of it, as that isn't the story the white benefactors want to hear to appease their guilt over America's greatest shame. You realise, in that moment, Henry is just a story Brown is selling, even if it is to further the abolitionist cause.

Rather than a straightforward history lesson, The Good Lord Bird takes a quasi-historical approach that fully embodies Brown — virtue, vice and all. As the opening title card announces: “All of this is true. Most of it happened.” Brown advocated violence as a necessary evil to kindle revolutionary reforms, and believed there was only one way to end slavery: through armed insurrection. Simply put, he wanted civil war. This becomes clear in the first episode, when he picks a battle with Dutch Henry. Following the shootout that kills Henry's father, Brown bursts into the home of a man he believes to be Dutch Henry's accomplice. Despite his son Owen's (Beau Knapp) desperate pleas to spare the man's life, Brown insists he must die for his complicity. He then convinces himself he is doing it to avenge the murder of Henry's father, before he finally reveals his true motive: “I don't care if this heathen's name is Dutch or Jim or Satan himself. We are at war with slavery.” It becomes clear he was an impulsive man who was often his own worst enemy. He failed in business (as a tanner, cattle breeder, and sheepherder among others) as he did in battle. Ironically, it's his failures and his doggedness that make this retelling a success. Undeterred by failure, he sowed the seeds of rebellion in furrows that would serve as trenches for the impending Civil War. 

The Good Lord Bird review Ethan Hawke unshackles American historys darkest chapter in fiery abolitionist Western

Daveed Diggs as Frederick Douglass

On Brown and Henry’s trips to New York and Canada, we encounter two other historical figures: Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs) and Harriet Tubman (Zainab Jah). If Tubman's treatment is near mythical, Diggs' depiction of Douglass is anything but flattering. To Brown, he is “King of the Negroes;” to Onion, he is a “speechifying parlour man.” When we first meet him, he is seen orating to a room full of white women, the only black person being his body man. He appears vainer and drunker than history teaches us. His home becomes the battleground for a whimsical cold war between his Black wife, Anna, and his white mistress, Ottilie Assing. They're like shoulder angels: the former favours Brown's cause, the latter not so much. There is some credibility to this depiction considering the times. Douglass refused to help Brown on his Harpers Ferry plan because he thought it was a suicide mission (and he was right), but he also worried it would invite unwelcome scrutiny of his public and private lives. In a striking moment, when Brown takes a patronising tone and affirms slaves don't care how freedom comes as long as it does, Douglass puts him in his place: “As someone who has never lived in bondage, never been owned, never been savaged, never been used to death and then discarded, please do not presume to tell me what a slave will or will not do.” However, he never once doubts Brown's commitment to the cause. He even admits, “John Brown's zeal in the cause of freedom was infinitely superior to mine. I could live for the slave. John Brown could die for him.”

When you consider its tragicomic tone, episodic pacing and Old Testament justice, The Good Lord Bird could very well be a vignette in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. From the planning to execution, Brown's Harpers Ferry plan resembles a comedy of errors right out of the Coen brothers' playbook. It was doomed to fail the minute he decided to send Onion and John Cook to prepare for their arrival. Onion struggles to raise an army of Black insurgents, because none of them are ready to trust a boy dressed as a girl. A self-confessed lothario and drunk, Cook ends up sleeping with the neighbour's wife, and spills their plans to locals at the tavern. Forced to move up the date of the raid, Onion somehow manages to rally together a few slaves, but forgets to relay the Rail Man's password that verifies they can safely disembark from the train. 

For a show about slavery, The Good Lord Bird has some of the year's funniest TV moments. In one of the more comical descriptions of Brown, Henry describes him as “nuttier than a squirrel turd.” This becomes clear when Brown's sons recount how their father gifted them 17 slaves for Christmas — before clarifying to their shocked Black comrades they were white Missourian slave owners given a taste of their own medicine. His rationale: “Any time someone tells me they are for slavery, I think they should try it.” In another scene, when pro-slavers struggle to decide whether a farmer is a free-stater or not, he asks them to hurry up: “Y'all gonna hang me or not? I got chores.” It is funny watching Old Man Brown's long-winded prayers turn into digressive ramblings — much to his sons' frustration. There is also some gleeful violence akin to a Tarantino flick: watch Steve Zahn run headlong into the line of fire of a cannon shot and get blown to pieces.

Slavery is not a backdrop here. Nor is it just some righteous rationale to vindicate retributive violence, like you could say it was in Django Unchained. There's a certain chaos to The Good Lord Bird's version of history, because it's a history full of shameful pages. It can't ever be erased. If all the demonstrations and unrest this year teach us anything, it's that America's present remains as chaotic as its past. The wounds that once divided the nation are still open and yet to heal.

The Good Lord Bird is streaming on Voot Select in India. Watch the trailer here —

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