‘The Good Lord Bird’ review: Reciting verses from the Bible with the barrel of a pistol

The seven-episode series starring Ethan Hawke revisits a powerful chapter in American history by bringing the notorious abolitionist John Brown back to our homes, and to our political discourse

There are two ways with which you open a film/series: one way is to establish the plot and introduce the characters and the other is, establish the central characters and then the plot. The Good Lord Bird opens in the latter fashion and uses the oldest narrative technique: flashback. “What a beautiful country,” says John Brown (Ethan Hawke, in a dense baritone), moments before his execution by hanging.

Is he a political prisoner, a lunatic or a freedom fighter? Everything above, believes Henry Shackleford, in whose eyes we see John Brown and his ragtag army of anti-slavery soldiers who fought for freedom and equality among all colours. If you are unfamiliar with the legend of John Brown, like this writer, chances are that you might have a divided opinion about him. He is the sort of a guy who swears by the Lord, quotes verses from the Bible and draws a pistol at once, and forces you to say your prayers while dodging bullets. Shackleford’s assessment of Brown is partly correct: he is a lunatic but for a cause.

The Good Lord Bird

  • Cast: Ethan Hawke, Joshua Caleb Johnson, Daveed Diggs, Wyatt Russell and Rafeal Cascal
  • Created by: Ethan Hawke and Mark Richard
  • Runtime: 45-50 minutes
  • Storyline: Based on James McBride’s book of the same name, a young black slave Henry Shackleford has a run-in with the (in)famous abolitionist John Brown, who frees the boy, thinks he is a girl, nicknames him ‘Onion’, and takes him into his army, in his fight to abolish slavery

The Good Lord Bird goes far back to the 1850s and begins in The Bleeding Kansas, where John Brown rescues Henry Shackleford from slavery and swears to free every coloured person in America. Shackleford, who Brown thinks is a girl and a lucky mascot, joins his clandestine mission unwillingly and gets a redemptive arc much later in the series. Through Shackleford aka Onion’s eyes, we see the first hand account of White supremacy and the Blacks’ insurrection with Brown leading them in the front, resulting in a slave revolt in Harpers Ferry, blurring the lines between justice and revenge.

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Brown was fiercely against not just the Whites but anyone who upheld the views of slavery. He put God’s philosophy above others and into action. But why would any man, particularly a devout Christian, trade bullets for words? Doesn’t that make him a hypocrite, the very people he was against?

The series is as much about John Brown as it is about Henry Shackleford’s political and sexual awakening. “There are advantages of being a girl,” he says in the first episode. But his boyish temptations are put to test when he meets a gorgeous, black sex worker Pie in Pikesville. She arouses him and the cat, naturally, is out of the bag. There, Shackleford not alone gets a sexual awakening, but witnesses the discrimination amongst the Blacks: the slightly, for the lack of a better word, “brown” people find work inside the master’s house either as sex workers or domestic help, while the others toil under the blistering sun — the oppressed gets oppressed by the…oppressed. How could John Brown and his relatively small group of dedicated fighters bring about a slave revolution in America? “But that has happened, right? Remember Spartacus,” says Brown. The ‘how’ is where the juice is and should have ideally been the series’ angle instead of ‘why’.

Ethan Hawke in The Good Lord Bird’

Three films — set around the same time period — are solid entry points to understand the troubled waters of America’s socio-political history: 12 Years a Slave, Lincoln and Gangs of New York. Perhaps it would not have taken 12 years for Solomon Northup (from 12 Years a Slave) to breathe the air of a freeman had John Brown been around. Perhaps.

The initial intrigue about John Brown and his politics gets watered down as it progresses, and the show’s tonality — the cinematography looks washed out and whiteish (?), set pieces are ordinary for a series that takes place in the 1850s, and the characters are lifeless barring Hawkee and Joshua, of course — is not as convincing as the makers would believe so. Perhaps Ethan Hawke and Mark Richard were so overwhelmed by the book and John Brown’s towering personality that they themselves seem unsure here and the show, for the most part, comes across as a lecture on American History 101. What we essentially see is the rise and fall of John Brown. But where is the drama? Where are the emotions? Where is the action? All these are there, but arbitrarily.

The series’ best political commentary are not those loud, uproarious verses of John Brown and his men — who all look and sound delightfully animated and understandably so — posturing as saviours to the oppressed. It rather comes from an unusual place, and in the form of realisation from a freeze shot: of Onion’s wishful longing for a family when he chances upon one.

The scene questions our perception of John Brown and his White identity, though the series raises little to no caution about the intention. “What is freedom without home, food and friends,” laments Onion in an earlier episode. When Brown breaks the shackles of Shackleford in Bleeding Kansas before christening him ‘Onion’, the latter inadvertently and by tradition blurts out ‘master’ while referring to him. “Master? You’re free as a bird’s fly,” says one of Brown’s men.

It is a quiet and poignant exchange, and the makers smartly subvert their own gaze when Onion gets a chance to voice out what this newfound freedom meant to him — “I could finally get off that dress now,” he says in the opening portion, which in itself is a commentary on the choices ‘imposed’ on them by the White folks. How is he, or anyone they rescued for that matter, a freeman/woman when Brown’s looming shadow continues to accompany them? Isn’t that a form of oppression, too? What does abolition and revolution mean when everyone has a say except the Blacks?

Was John Brown a saint, a terrorist, a ‘White Saviour’, a prophet, or a civil warrior? It is best to leave that argument out, for, history, as they say, is the best judge. What John Brown was and perhaps is, is a speck of the light that cast out the darkness in America, eventually leading it to the Civil War. For some Americans, John Brown was the man they thought Abraham Lincoln was, even today. Of that analogy we are not sure, but what we are sure of is that American democracy emerged from these cauldron moments of history.

The Good Lord Bird will stream from October 5 on Voot Select