Why The Good Lord Bird should be your next box set
8/10 Rating 8/10
Ethan Hawke is astonishing in this timely, telling abolitionist romp.
Is there anything Ethan Hawke can’t do? The versatile actor has brought his earnest brand of charisma to everything from the Before Sunrise trilogy and the intensely disturbing First Reformed to the romantic comedy Maggie’s Plan. But you’ve never seen Ethan Hawke like this – he turns up everything to 11 in The Good Lord Bird, the true tale of John Brown, an abolitionist who arguably triggered the American Civil War.
Brown is an intensely religious man, and he believes with all his heart that he has a calling from God to abolish slavery – and, moreover, he believes that he is right to do anything it takes to achieve his goal, including using violence. And so he rounds up a crew of volunteer soldiers to fight his crusade – and they follow him all the way from his recruitment drive to the 1859 raid on the Harpers Ferry Army depot in West Virginia.
“Most of it happened” are the words that qualify that true story’s opening episode, and that barely believable tone runs riot over the seven fast-paced chapters. Our narrator of the events is “Little Onion” (Joshua Caleb Johnson), a young slave whose real name is Henry Shackleford but is mistaken for a girl by Brown when he is freed – leading to him having to wear a dress and go along with that mistake for the rest of Brown’s life. While that could be a cheap joke in a lesser show, The Good Lord Bird treats it with the genuine conviction that both John and Henry bring to their relationship; John genuinely believes he’s doing the right thing and Henry genuinely wants to support those open-hearted beliefs.
The series takes its cue from James McBride’s award-winning novel about Brown, and there’s a novelistic quality to the years-spanning saga, as it introduces iconic people from Black History, including Harriet Tubman (Zainab Jah) and Frederick Douglass (a vibrant Daveed Diggs). But there’s also an irreverence that stops this feeling like a history lesson, and both Jah and Diggs are clearly enjoying themselves as the two famous figures. Diggs, in particular, is a delight, sending himself up at the same time as passionately speaking about emancipation.
While both Harriet and Frederick ultimately condone Brown’s selfless, unstoppable determination, they also call him out for his inability to fully understand their experiences and perspectives. (“It’s not a question of faith, but a question of method,” Douglass declares in one heated debate.) It’s in these moments that The Good Lord Bird really takes flight, serving up a shred commentary on how to be an effective ally in a fight for change, without overlooking or speaking over those you’re trying to help.
But there’s also no denying that this is Hawke’s show, and he is ferociously good, flamboyantly reciting the Bible with righteous fury that’s both entertainingly over-the-top and stirringly sincere. Hawke and Mark Richard co-wrote the script, and his frenzied lead turn seeps into every aspect of the production, with director Albert Hughes lining up some frantic shootouts, all laced with an energy that’s part slapstick, part thriller and all kinds of fun.
From the stylish opening titles to Brown’s striking final words, this is a lively, thought-provoking and hugely entertaining romp that’s not quite like anything else you’ve seen on TV. Should it work? No. Does it work? Absolutely.