Earnest Violence and American Reckoning in The Good Lord Bird 

The Good Lord Bird | Showtime
Showtime

I am not a deeply religious man, though when I do recollect the holy words entrenched in the back of my brain, from years of Sunday school and a relatively rigorous Jewish upbringing, it tends to be words of universal human goodness that stand the test of time. The lofty, fantastical tales and admonitions about fabrics and shellfish are mostly window-dressing when compared to the beaming, righteous energy at the heart of so many religious tenets: love thy neighbor, treat others as you wish to be treated, pay it forward, respect and remember history, and defend those who are weaker and more vulnerable than yourself, for example. Good lessons, more humanitarian than celestial, more universal than sectarian. I spell this out because, while The Good Lord Bird might be the most vociferously Bible-quoting television show of 2020, its hoarse adherence to holy scripture is not meant as a recruiting tactic, but is instead presented in a thoroughly righteous context. That is, screamed from the mouth of John Brown, one of the most ferociously valiant white Americans of all time, and a God-fearing abolitionist of the most violent and dedicated caliber. 

The Good Lord Bird is an exceptional miniseries, one of the best pieces of media the paradigm-shifting year had to offer. Over seven episodes, this thoroughly researched and informative limited series strikes a deeply effective tone, balancing the disturbing realities of 19th-century enslavement of Black people in the southern United States with humility, verve, and a daring, jaunty sense of humor. The source material, acclaimed novelist James McBride’s 2013 novel of the same name, also found remarkable candor and charm in between the lines of what may be the cruelest chapters in American history, and through deliberate and exquisitely well-measured adaptation, co-creator and star Ethan Hawke and his assembled team magnificently bring the book and its central figures to life.

As a performer, Hawke plays John Brown as a cross between manic genius and unruly, self-conscious warrior, one side confident in his religious convictions, the other nervous that his own relentlessness might be weakening the anti-slavery movement, or worse, overshadowing the Black Americans whose liberty he so brazenly defends. As the behind-the-scenes kickstarter to the proceedings, Hawke seems to have embodied a similar dichotomy; though his part is ostensibly the central character, he, McBride, and the other showrunners have made palpable efforts to present Hawke’s Brown with no more reverence than they treat the historical plight of African-Americans. The complex, manifestly important presence of Black individuals, within both the pages of history and the story of the series, is consistently foregrounded, and at no point does The Good Lord Bird come close to the dreaded, rightfully chastised proclivity for mass-marketed stories involving race to exalt a “white savior” in order to anchor certain myopic white audiences.

Joshua Caleb Johnson and Ethan Hawke in The Good Lord Bird

The series is anchored by the character of young Henry Shackleford, played with uproarious nuance by Joshua Caleb Johnson. Without spoiling the twists and turns of the narrative, which begin almost immediately with fasten-your-seatbelts intensity, Henry’s story is ingeniously symbolic of a storied African-American perspective from which many of us Black citizens observe certain gratingly loud, insistent white “allies,” even when they are doing or trying their best. That is, not every restatement of your woke beliefs is always welcome all the time, and in case the widespread reckonings of this past summer did not reach you with the attendant nuance so many of us were hoping you might catch, sometimes it is a much better idea to just be quiet, and let those whose lives are at stake speak for themselves. 

The resourceful but always wary Henry embodies this reaction from the beginning, as his entry into John Brown’s proximity involves violent mayhem sparked by Brown’s mere presence in a southern plantation. After being recognized by bitter slaveholders rather passionately opposed to the abolitionist movement’s principles, a fierce shootout commences, and the embattled Brown whisks Henry away to safety. When the dust settles, Brown takes Henry under his wing, but moves so briskly and cacophonously through life that he neglects to clarify the boy’s name, or gender. Because he mishears Henry’s name as Henrietta, Brown believes him to be a girl, and begins affectionately calling him Onion as a means of ingratiating himself to “her.” Much of the series’ regular comedic punchlines stem directly from this drawn-out case of mistaken identity, leading to some farcical, Wilde-worthy mixups, facial reactions, and maneuvers on Onion’s part. But the most resonant effect of this admittedly quite funny situation is a quiet, subtle interrogation of the awkward relationship between observant, competent Black people and the white figures who purport to offer them salvation and betterment. It’s not always a hollow or toxic dynamic, to be clear, but to many it’s an extremely valuable, and difficult, dynamic to explore.

And what a perfect year to explore it. If you’re like me, in the midst and aftermath of this summer’s broad and cathartic conversations on race, you might have wondered how media produced before this moment would fit into these discourses when released alongside them. Certain recent examples are telling: criticisms of the racial politics in The Queen’s Gambit have undoubtedly been bolstered by a growing confidence on the part of Black consumers to speak up when popular media is under-representing or misrepresenting them. Moments like this speak to the importance of continuing these societal debates and reckonings, as our media landscape is invariably better for having a diversity of reactions and interpretations welcomed and acknowledged on racial, sexual, and generational lines. The energized confluence of these themes can also be found in other 2020 works, including Steve McQueen’s riveting Small Axe anthology and Spike Lee’s incisive Da 5 Bloods, both of which examine under-acknowledged facets and histories of Black lives and encourage the same diversification of mainstream ideologies that BLM and other progressive movements encouraged over the course of this year.

I was delighted to see The Good Lord Bird join these works. Instead of presenting a stale, tone-deaf use of Black and white perspectives, the series does quite the opposite, and depicts a convergence of white American pride and passion with the liberation of and deference towards Black people’s humanity. The show does not make the grave mistake of patting white America on the back for conveniently caring about others, nor does it imply that tepid, unproductive progressivism (i.e. posting a pat black square on Instagram, etc.) is righteous, or exempts oneself from the fight against racism, tyranny, and entrenched white supremacy. Rather, the show aims, like Brown himself did, to galvanize those sitting idly on the sidelines, who may have lost hope or interest in the fight for civil rights and true equality in a world beset by complex, ever-evolving modern challenges. Brown’s dedication to scripture, though considered by many even at the time to be fanatical, often correctly boils down to the same simple values I listed earlier: compassion, freedom, and justice for all. Surely, these are values we must all agree on. 

Brown occupies a controversial place in American history, both among those who agreed with his values and those who despised them, and The Good Lord Bird addresses both disparate, awkward aspects of his legacy and behavior. Many who have heard of him will likely know of his capability for extreme violence, including the grisly episode wherein he and his men executed and dismembered multiple slaveholders, and their families, in a single night. As an act it violates multiple rules of conflict we have come to accept in most societies: indiscriminate violence and bloodshed, especially of those existing on the periphery of an evil act, is a no-no. 

However, Brown did not believe his actions to be indiscriminate, but simply the manifestation of the most discerning, Godly impulses a mere mortal could muster. He believed with compelling resolve that those who willingly participated in and benefitted from the cancerous evils of human slavery had forfeited their right to life and limb, and that in extinguishing the lives and removing the limbs of such people, Brown was carrying out a divine intervention and saving the soul of the American identity. One brilliant piece of dialogue in particular, from a late episode of the series, makes this difficult but resonant dynamic clear. A formerly enslaved Black man answers the doubts of a white skeptic who has just scoffed at Brown’s dedication to saving ungrateful Blacks: “He’s ain’t gon’ save us,” the Black man says calmly and deliberately. “He’s tryna save you.” 

As for those who love or admire Brown’s violent crusade, a different reticence takes hold (which the series also addresses, albeit with less clarity, and more room for interpretation and debate). Brown’s journey culminated in 1859 with his grandiose scheme to raid the armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, a small settlement with enough firepower, he reckoned, to arm every enslaved person in the surrounding territories and set off a chain reaction of rebellion and emancipation. The Good Lord Bird makes very clear, however, that slavery as an institution was so firmly entrenched in the country’s national conscience that most of its white and Black inhabitants felt no reason to expect that it would end anytime soon. This widespread belief made Brown’s insistence on permanent and imminent abolition sound all the more fanciful, and was a reason so many activists refrained from joining his intended mission. Numerous historical figures, including Frederick Douglass (played strangely but amusingly by Daveed Diggs) and “The General” Harriet Tubman (played by Zainab Jah), are shown hesitating when Brown asks for support in his revolutionary plans.

As we now know, Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, along with his subsequent infamy and celebrity, became one of the catalysts for the American conscience (and president) to acknowledge the unacceptable state of the south. But before this, even among many who loved him, Brown was widely seen as a radical, tilting at windmills with delusional aspirations; with this in mind, the series does well to capture the magnitude and improbability of his cause. Many moments and character arcs frankly address how ridiculous it must have sounded to join or support his ragtag crew of vigilante abolitionists, while Hawke’s unrestrained intensity and Johnson’s wry, skeptical narration paint an amusing but chilling picture of how intractable the cancer of slavery must have seemed. For this reason, Brown’s efforts often come across as irresponsibly idealistic, as he tries to recruit support for what seems to be a suicide mission that cannot possibly succeed. 

Yet there is a valuable lesson within the historical narratives so enthusiastically captured in The Good Lord Bird. That is, for such a series to be released now, in the midst of so many societal ruptures and crises, effectively makes the case for taking radical pushes for righteous changes seriously (albeit with the correct footnote that success is not necessarily guaranteed, nor should it be). Perhaps it is in itself fanciful to consider modern progressive politics comparable to the stakes faced by Brown and his ilk, but the need for ideological rigor tracks: nothing too widely accepted is easily resisted or overturned, and winning hearts and minds requires a physical and practical level of engagement impossible to achieve without recruitment, clarity, and demonstration. Even if victory is not seized in a traditional sense, as Brown’s efforts showed, the undeterred attempt to force liberating change out of seemingly immovable paradigms can be enough to begin momentum for future success. It’s a fine lesson for any time, and not something most activists or dedicated humanitarians need to be told, but it is certainly a welcome and commendable point for a TV series to make in the challenging and clarifying year that was 2020. 

On that note, perhaps the most commendable element here is the show’s depiction and treatment of slavery itself. We have seen more than enough unmitigated Black pain in our media. On the news, in our textbooks, in careless cultural representations, images of Black suffering and trauma are sprinkled into far too many corners of American media, even when displayed by those claiming sympathy. This series is not one of those spaces—the makers of The Good Lord Bird manage to tell a story involving a period of Black enslavement without resorting to the miserable or the devastating, resulting in a document of history meant to be watched and appreciated by all, including those of us who are sick and tired of being forced to re-imagine the peril which our ancestors faced. Instead, we can comfortably commemorate such people’s resilience and humanity, while also appreciating the energy and sacrifices of genuine allies who attempted to help their situation. Those essentialized Sunday school teachings come in handy once again. The lessons this show seeks to teach similarly represent a universal, steadfast belief in basic, inalienable humanity—regardless of whichever deities may or may not be involved.

It’s all a brilliant achievement, and a restorative presence in a crowded culture that tends to play most of these elements with too much bite and too little love. The Good Lord Bird turns Bible-thumping bombast and difficult, complex American history into an engaging, seven-part tale of love and heroism and righteousness and honesty and genuine belief in the American experiment. An experiment which—as Brown and Dr. King and Baldwin and so many others would attest—is a wonderful thing, but has never, ever, come close to being realized because, as Brown states in the series, too many Americans do not understand their own country’s founding principles. 

But John Brown did. And he tried his best to save them. Thank God for that.