“It’s alright to stretch the word of the Lord sometimes,” admits God-fearing, fire-breathing abolitionist John Brown (Ethan Hawke) in The Good Lord Bird. It’s an approach the darkly comic miniseries takes towards matters historical as well as religious, as each episode opens with the disclaimer: “All of this is true. Most of it happened.”
Brown did, in fact, lead a series of violent raids across “Bleeding Kansas” in the 1850s, and later orchestrated a doomed raid on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with which he hoped to inspire and arm a slave uprising to end our national disgrace by any means necessary. Many credit (or blame) him for forcing the issue into the public consciousness and helping to inspire the Civil War. Was he a genius? A madman? A hero? A fool? The Good Lord Bird looks at all of those questions and many more surrounding Brown, before answering, at a thunderous volume, “Yes.”
Hawke is the big star (and, with Mark Richard, adapted James McBride’s novel), but the wild story of Brown’s violent campaign to end slavery is told here through the eyes of Henry “Onion” Shackleford (terrific newcomer Joshua Caleb Johnson), a young slave whom Brown mistakes for a girl. That Brown can’t recognize Onion as a boy in a dress is the first sign of many that he’s not quite all there. But shifting the perspective allows Hawke to go mountainous with his performance. He is a sweaty, manic, delusional wonder to behold, giving the story a jolt whenever he appears.
He is also, in something of a rarity in his career, incredibly funny. Hawke originally wanted an actor like Jeff Bridges to play Brown, but it’s hard to imagine the Dude himself being any more ludicrous than the version on display here. This fictionalized Brown is allowed moments of humanity, even wisdom, but more often than not is presented as a danger to himself and others — a man with good intentions and not the first idea of how to achieve them.
It’s startling how many laughs Hawke generates — and, for that matter, how funny The Good Lord Bird is as a whole, given its subject matter. Hawke, Richard, and their other collaborators (among the directors: Albert Hughes, Kevin Hooks, and Haifaa Al-Mansour) have managed to retain the satirical spirit of McBride’s book. They derive most of the comedy from the self-importance of Brown himself, and from the hypocrisy of all the free characters. Men who profited from slavery are held up as figures of ridicule (Steve Zahn has an entertaining guest spot in the second episode as a bandit who develops a crush on Onion), but so are members of the abolitionist movement itself. (As he travels with Brown to Northern fund-raiser meetings, Onion can’t help noticing that the only black person in the room besides himself tends to be a butler.) Daveed Diggs is suitably pleased with himself as the great Frederick Douglass, who in this context can act almost as concerned with the perks of his own celebrity as he is with freeing his fellows; his performance is so assured that it allows this cartoonishly violent pulp story to transform itself into a slamming-door bedroom farce for a bit.
Though there are many profoundly moving scenes throughout the tale — particularly regarding Onion’s friendships with both Brown and fellow slave Bob (Hubert Point-Du Jour) — the miniseries tends to work best when the balance is at least 60/40 absurdity versus tragedy. There are a number of indelible cameos by the likes of David Morse, Keith David, and Orlando Jones, but Hawke is the comic engine driving the whole enterprise, and the energy level can flag whenever he’s absent for a stretch. Brown’s four sons (played by, among others, Beau Knapp and Hawke’s Boyhood son, Ellar Coltrane) seem largely indistinguishable, though Hawke’s real-life daughter, Maya Hawke (Stranger Things), makes a very strong impression during her late appearance as Brown’s daughter Annie.
Like Brown himself, The Good Lord Bird has very little use for subtlety. The over-the-top nature of the violence isn’t always easy to watch, but it mostly succeeds in conveying both how perilous this mission is and how surreal the larger idea of owning human beings as property should feel. And the soundtrack is loaded with killer blues and gospel songs, like Nina Simone’s recording of “I Shall Be Released” playing over a mass hanging.
For the most part, Onion is our narrator, and Johnson does well at capturing the innocence of a kid who should not be involved in any of what we see him do. Late in the series, though, Douglass briefly addresses us to ponder how history should view his ally and sometime-friend John Brown. “The question is,” he wonders, “did John Brown fail?” The answer is more complicated than it seems at times. So, for that matter, is Osawatomie John Brown himself, the man at the center of this strange, hilarious, poignant fun-house-mirror view of a time in our nation’s history that feels painfully relevant today.
The Good Lord Bird premieres October 4th on Showtime. I’ve seen all seven episodes.