Did John Brown, the infamous abolitionist who led the 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, really take a cross-dressing teenage slave under his wing and name him Onion? No, not at all. “The Good Lord Bird,” which never purports itself as a true retelling, opens each episode with the tagline “All of this is true. Most of it happened.” Usually playing with the past, especially with a history as traumatizing as America’s original sin, slavery, can quickly go left. Just look at “Antebellum.” But creators Ethan Hawke and Mark Richard’s seven-episode Showtime miniseries, based on James McBride’s novel of the same title, just barely glides over the unavoidable traps. Instead, “The Good Lord Bird” is a wickedly funny take on an enigmatic man whose zealotry to the cause of freedom led to the most important event in American history next to the Civil War.
Often the antebellum series, which travels from Missouri to Canada, and New York, carries itself as a western. Our first sighting of John Brown (Ethan Hawke), a man who went by many pseudonyms, finds him in a barber’s chair. When confronted by the town’s patrons, he pulls out his two six-shooters to defend himself. While he’s not killed, the establishment’s barber is. Brown mistakes the barber’s son, Henry Shackleford (the delightful Joshua Caleb Johnson), for a girl named Henrietta, takes him to his camp and renames him Onion after he takes a bite of the crusader’s old lucky vegetable.
Onion doesn’t know what to make of Brown, other than he might be unhinged. As one character later says of the abolitionist, “The cheese has slid all the way off your biscuit.” But Onion, like any slave, is just trying to survive. And if dressing as a girl will get him to freedom, then so be it. Onion tries to run away from Brown, and in his escape, comes upon the quick-witted Bob (Hubert Point-Du Jour). A slave, Onion finds him sitting in a wagon while a group of whites decides whether to hang a white landowner who they think is a free-stater.
Oddly, “The Good Lord Bird” is a hilarious series. For instance, when the lynchers can’t decide whether to hang the landowner, the latter asks, “Y’all gonna hang me or not? I’ve got chores.” Turning America’s greatest sin into a punchline is no easy feat, but the show often succeeds because white folks — whether slaver or abolitionists — are always the butt of the joke. For instance, every Black person knows immediately that Onion is a boy, yet the white people never catch on. Mostly because, whether they mean no harm or not, they can’t see Black folks as individuals. They are either white people’s avenue to fame, or their stairway to riches, and not much has changed in the nearly two centuries since.
These moments of self-awareness help the narrative remain on track. Because if only Southerners were lampooned “The Good Lord Bird” would quickly lose any entertainment value. For instance, when Brown goes on a speaking tour to raise money for his bloody campaign, Onion immediately notices that the only Black person there to see the abolitionist speak is a servant working the event. She comes to notice that the only person not allowed to talk about the liberation of Black folks are Black people.
The show is also aware of falling into a white savior narrative. In fact, you might call John Brown the original white savior. The infamous abolitionist routinely grapples with his blindspots. At one point, he argues with Fredrick Douglass (Daveed Diggs) about what the slave needs. On another occasion, Onion confronts him about misunderstanding freedom. That is, the absence of slavery alone doesn’t make one free. It’s how you live, and the opportunities afforded to you, which decides liberation.
But too often the series falls in love with Brown. And how can you not? Hawke gives an unhinged performance in a series that allows him to express hilarity and anger in equal extremes. And a beard at the same level of epicness. For example, while his men, which includes his sons, believe in his plan to release the slaves from bondage, they dread his hour-length prayers. These lampoons are balanced by Brown’s inexhaustible rage, which needs only be measured through the decibels of his screeching yowls. Hawke gives a wonderfully bewildering performance. But the elevation of Brown often results in the minimizing of others.
When Douglass enters the fray, the show bends the image of the famed-orator for laughs. Which isn’t an issue at all. The showrunners portray Douglass as vain beyond belief. At one point, when describing the power the camera holds, the Black abolitionist unabashedly explains, “I am enamored with the device, and the device is enamored with me.” “The Good Lord Bird” also depicts Douglass’ unique home life, as both his wife Anna (Tamberla Perry) and his white German mistress Ottilie (Lex King) live with him. The pair faun over the talented speaker, and if the show holds another weakness, it resides in women whose sole existence is to serve their male counterparts’ ambitions. But beyond this mistake, Douglass is ever so slightly twisted into a villain with regards to Harpers Ferry, which feels unfair.
But even with these missteps, “The Good Lord Bird” avoids other slip-ups through its sharp script, with its old-timey dialogue, keeping the brisk pace. Onion’s cross-dressing, which could easily play into tawdry jokes, finds a touching conclusion. Though the series might be violent, the writers rarely inflict such brutality on its Black characters. Instead, white folks often succumb to the cartoony deaths. And oddball characters like Tom (Rafael Casal), a downright rascal, fill the void felt when Hawke isn’t on screen. But most of all, the show features a fantastic gospel soundtrack. The songs might be contemporary gospel music, but the genre’s history is steeped in historical spirituals dating back to slavery, which lends the music an inherent timelessness.
“The Good Lord Bird” shouldn’t work, but somehow the evocatively shot series leaps from the pages of history. And though it might lose its way, in the same meandering fashion as one of Brown’s prayers, writers never forget that the goal is seeing Black people fighting for their freedom. And if you never knew anything of Brown, and the event which most believe began the Civil War, then “The Good Lord Bird” is the right place to start. [B-]