For sheer knee-slapping, jaw-dropping, head-scratching entertainment, I’ve never read anything like James McBride’s historical farce, The Good Lord Bird. Winner of the 2013 National Book Award, on the surface it's a sendup of the wild-eyed abolitionist John Brown as he shoots and preaches and eludes pursuers all the way from Bleeding Kansas to Harpers Ferry in the buildup to the Civil War that he — more than any single person — started.
But as you sink deeper into this tall tale, you begin to realize that McBride is not sending up John Brown — he’s sending up our airless, textbook-quality understanding of history, which is the enabler of stupidity, ignorance, and worse. “Brown, who said that speeches, sermons, and petitions were accomplishing nothing, that ‘moral suasion is hopeless,’ saw violence as unfortunately necessary if slavery in the United States were to be eliminated.” So true, Wikipedia, and so boring.
The Good Lord Bird is told by a 14-year-old slave boy who somehow gets pulled into the old man’s mayhem-ridden road trip but is, for most of the story, highly skeptical of Brown’s motives and, frankly, his sanity. By pairing the boy’s insights and patois with Brown’s self-righteous persona, McBride advances ideas that ring truer than anything in a history book. He brings one of America’s most significant figures back to life as a four-dimensional character who breaks through the wall that usually separates readers from icons. The first time I read The Good Lord Bird was 2014, shortly after Michael Brown’s murder. I put down the book and I swear, Old Brown was in the room with me, giving me the fish-eye, asking: Well, sinner, what will ye do now?
At the Showtime press event earlier this year to promote Ethan Hawke’s adaptation of The Good Lord Bird, I struck up a conversation with McBride as the scrum of reporters and flacks hovered around Hawke a few feet away. And we just started talking about our love for this crazy, apocalyptic, mass-murderin’ coot who hanged 160 years ago. We practically started tearing up, we did. McBride has gifted us with several works of counterintuitive art, but it’s hard to top a book that takes an action hero like John Brown, rolls him in the mud and blood for 300 pages — all the while rambling biblically like he’s God’s envoy or something — and yet, when it’s over, you find yourself taking him more seriously.
So it was with some trepidation that I started watching the first TV show Ethan Hawke has ever created, starring Ethan Hawke as John Brown, adapted from this book. There was so much that could go wrong. Besides, you can practically read The Good Lord Bird in six hours, which is how long it takes to watch this seven-part movie on Showtime.
I needn’t have worried, though. Guided by a steady adaptation from veteran screenwriter Mark Richard and a gripping performance from Hawke, this filmed version is a rollicking good time, a lovely complement to McBride’s literary achievement that should drive more readers to the book.
Here’s the setup: Henry, played by Joshua Caleb Johnson, is a young slave boy living in Kansas — where, did you know, slavery was legal from 1854 to 1860 — who one day winds up in the middle of a gunfight involving the notorious J.B. Brown takes a shine to Henry, but mistakes him for a girl and puts him in a dress. “Little Onion,” he calls him as they embark on a series of rambles involving a mixed-race whorehouse, a flight to Canada (and back), roughneck slavers, political flim-flammers, and a humdinger of a conspiracy to seize the U.S. armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with less than thirty men.
The show is beautifully scored, with lots of old-timey gospel singin’ and banjo pickin’, which don’t forget is also a Black thing.
Onion accompanies (and narrates) these adventures even though he’s not really sure he wanted this lunatic to liberate him in the first place. But that’s John Brown for you. So maybe it was fitting that a white actor who’s never mounted a series would decide he’s definitely going to adapt The Good Lord Bird for television.
“Ethan wanted to meet,” McBride told me, recalling his decision to participate in the project. “So I said, ‘You have to come to my church because I’m there on weekends doing a church program.’ So Ethan rode his bike over there because he lives a few blocks away from my church.” (McBride, a much-decorated songwriter to boot, teaches kids in his Brooklyn neighborhood how to play piano. Despite being filmed in rural Virginia, The Good Lord Bird is more New York than a Spike Lee joint.)
“He needed to park his bike, and one of the church ladies was standing there,” McBride continued. “Ethan said to her, ‘Can I leave my bike here in the church while James and I go have lunch?’ And she said, ‘Are you the guy who came here to fix the air conditioner?’ And he laughed. He thought it was funny. And I said to myself, ‘If this guy can handle that, he can certainly handle this funny story about John Brown,’ because the idiosyncrasies of African-American life are very, very difficult to deal with — even for African Americans.”
At no point is this more obvious than when Frederick Douglass, the great orator, abolitionist, and ally of John Brown’s, makes his entry as a womanizing jerk. Played by Daveed Diggs, this bit of drunk history never really stumbles over into sacrilege (unlike, say, John Mulaney’s recent idiotic turn as Henry David Thoreau). That’s because Douglass, who had many flaws, understood the kind of crazy courage it took for Brown to unilaterally declare war on the cotton kingdom. Which is why, as we watch the Harpers Ferry invasion crushed in slow motion by Robert E. Lee’s federal troops, it is Diggs we hear, reading without irony the famous words of Douglass: “If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery.”
But that’s the history lesson, and it’s a mercifully brief part of this large-hearted entertainment. James McBride and Ethan Hawke want us to see that John Brown not only lit the tinder for sectional conflict back in 1859, but personally displayed the kind of all-out effort it would take to rectify America’s original sin. And as the haunting final credits of The Good Lord Bird roll, faces appear on the screen, and they remind us that we are still living in sin.
The Good Lord Bird premieres on Showtime October 4th at 9:00 PM ET.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.