‘The Good Lord Bird’ revises our view of history

Sunday, October 11, 2020 - 5:50pm

NOSELL

Showtime

“All of this is true. Most of it happened.” The first words of “The Good Lord Bird” cue you into the hour-long premiere of the wildly entertaining and hardly believable story of John Brown (Ethan Hawke, “First Reformed”), the man most Americans know as the abolitionist who led a violent raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859.

Before Harper’s Ferry, there was “The Good Lord Bird” in the years leading up to it. Based on the novel of the same name by James McBride, this comedic and unhinged version of Brown’s life is told through the narration of a fictional enslaved boy Henry Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson, “Black-ish”). Minutes into the show’s first episode, John Brown has initiated a gunfight with Missouri slave owners that ultimately kills Henry’s father. With Henry in tow, Brown flees the scene and vows to award the young boy with “freedom.” 

Henry, however, believes this supposed rescue is more of an abduction. Hesitant to cause trouble and endanger his life, Henry complies with Brown’s orders and joins his ragtag band of anti-slavery fighters. Quickly, Henry’s silence leads to misunderstandings, including Brown mistaking Henry for a girl and addressing him by the name “Onion.” Later, Henry, now Onion, remarks that Brown is a true white man because “whatever he believed, he believed whether it was true or not.” 

Brown and his army are full of eccentricities, most vehement of which is Brown’s fervent Christianity and savior complex. While the abolitionist believes his cause is a righteous one, Henry soon learns that Brown’s methods for wiping out slavery are as violent and extreme as the institution itself. Still, the boy chooses to stay with the small militia out of fear for his own safety in the time of Bleeding Kansas. 

From the producers of “Get Out” and “BlacKkKlansman,” this miniseries seeks to explore America’s institutionally racist history by studying the elusive and legendary John Brown. From its outset, “The Good Lord Bird” portrays its characters in shades of moral grey. Brown fights for freedom in the name of God but is merciless in his fight against slavery. The story complicates Brown’s legacy by portraying his character through Henry’s eyes.

Usually, John Brown is interpreted to be a progressive folk hero by Antebellum South standards. His eventual execution cemented him as a martyr in American mythology but “The Good Lord Bird” dissects this image and reveals the many sides of the controversial figure. In the show, John Brown is not well-versed in the Bible, yet claims he’s a devout and traditional Christian. He opposes slavery for the suffering it causes yet tortures the innocent in order to get his way. Rather than present another white savior narrative, the series offers a set of complex characters brought to life by Hawke and Johnson’s flawless performances. 

The chaotic and, at times, comedic tone of “The Good Lord Bird” often feels at odds with the dark subject matter, but the show manages to balance these extremes while remaining sensitive to the traumatic experiences of the time period. Despite taking place in the 1850s, the series has a deeply modern and current feel, especially in its criticism of the follies of white allyship and arrogance. 

Ultimately, this unique period piece challenges viewers to reconsider their assumptions about history and the history of American racism. While “all of this is true,” “The Good Lord Bird” demands audiences to confront uncomfortable truths of history and the fact that “most of it happened” through the fantastical and riveting world of Henry “Onion” Shackleford.

 

Daily Arts Writer Anya Soller can be reached at anyasol@umich.edu


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