Fiery abolitionist John Brown isn’t a clear-cut hero.
Advocating (and practising) violence to overthrow a slave state, Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in the year before the American Civil War is seen as an inciting event of the bloody revolution which followed.
To some he was a martyr, a man who gave up his life in his zeal to free the enslaved. To others, he was a madman prone to tempestuous sermons and a light trigger finger.
As embodied in Ethan Hawke, Brown is both.
The Good Lord Bird, a seven-episode miniseries that provides the canvas for Brown’s story is also both – a dramatised slice of US history that parses substantial thematic points as well as a wild, irreverent piece of entertainment.
It’s not easy to balance depth and bombast, especially in the context of a 19th century historical production – but The Good Lord Bird brings it home. It does so with both philosophical wrangles over the meaning of freedom and explosive violence.
Set in the handful of years before the real-life Harper’s Ferry raid, The Good Lord Bird is told through the perspective of the fictional Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson), a teenage enslaved boy named Henry who is mistaken for Henrietta and taken in by Brown when Onion is orphaned.
Keeping up his guise as a girl (bonnet and all), Onion accompanies Brown and his ragtag army, half made up of his many sons, and the other half disenfranchised folks such as “bushwhackers, Indians and Jews”.
Onion is the story’s Huck Finn-esque narrator and actual lead character, which cleverly enables him to witness both the pro-slavers’ cruelty and the abolitionist north’s hypocrisy.
Along their journey, across Kansas, to New York, Canada and then onto Virginia for the last stand, it’s Onion’s estimation of Brown that drives the story. It’s Onion’s filter through which we hear Brown’s passionate speechifying against racial injustice.
The choice is particularly effective because newcomer Johnson’s restrained vibe is a perfect complement to Hawke’s frenzied energy.
Having Onion be the audience’s guide takes a bit of the edge off Brown’s mania which means no matter how deliberately broad Hawke’s performance becomes, it’s never overwhelming.
Hawke adapted The Good Lord Bird with writer Mark Richard from James McBride’s award-winning 2013 novel of the same name, which explains why this is the first proper TV series Hawke has put his name to.
You’ll even spot some of his previous collaborators among the cast, including Reality Bites’ Steve Zahn and Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane while Daveed Diggs turns up as a flamboyant Frederick Douglass.
Hawke’s Brown is charismatic but intense, thoughtful but unbridled. It’s a completely committed performance, one that commands the eye every time he’s on screen. It’s likely one of Hawke’s best portrayals.
There is an urgency to The Good Lord Bird given this year’s resurgence of Black Lives Matters highlighting the institutional discrimination and outright racism that is perpetuated in 2020.
That the devout Brown is a proponent of violence stirs questions of just how do you fight against a movement that refuses to die out?
One specific scene in the second episode in which an enslaved character named Sibonia reveals a plot to murder her white oppressors, a confession imbued with the anguish with hundreds of years of injustice, bores into your consciousness.
Brown is an extreme character with an extreme approach and while the vibrant, bonkers and occasionally comical The Good Lord Bird isn’t saying people should take up arms, it does express the high stakes – literally life and death – of a war that ended in 1865 but still hasn’t been won.
The Good Lord Bird is streaming now on Stan with new episodes available every Sunday
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