Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Good Lord Bird’ On Showtime, Where Ethan Hawke Plays Abolitionist John Brown

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Ethan Hawke is almost 50, believe it or not. It doesn’t seem like that long ago he was playing rebellious teenagers and twentysomethings, but now that he’s firmly in middle age he has been able to expand what he can do. One of those roles is that of abolitionist preacher John Brown, at least as the off-kilter bloviator that James McBride portrayed him as in his 2013 novel The Good Lord Bird. Hawke and Mark Richard (Hell On Wheels) adapted the novel for this miniseries, which is finally bowing on Showtime after twice being delayed this year. Is Hawke able to fill Brown’s shoes?

Opening Shot: “All of this is true. Some of it happened.” That graphic pops up right before the first scene, where a young man looks at a crowd gathering. We hear a voice over saying, “Most folks never heard of John Brown. If they have, all they know is that he was hung for being a traitor.”

The Gist: The crowd the young man is seeing is the crowd gathering to see the hanging of abolitionist preacher John Brown (Ethan Hawke). The person speaking is Henry Shackelford (Joshua Caleb Johnson), the young slave he “freed” two years earlier.

We flash back to that time: 1856 in the Kansas territory. A man is being shaved by Henry’s father, who is a barber; Henry is shining his shoes. When both Shackelfords’ owner, Dutch Henry Sherman (David Morse) comes in to find out who this person is, the person — it turns out to be Brown — spews Bible verses at him and shouts him down about the evil that is slavery. Dutch Henry threatens Brown, but Brown ends up shooting Dutch Henry with a rifle he had in his coat; in the scramble, Dutch accidentally kills Henry’s father.

Brown “frees” Henry and takes him to his army’s encampment. At a certain point, when he asked Henry’s father what his name was, he thought he heard Henrietta, so Brown assumes Henry is a girl. He eats the petrified onion Brown was carrying with him for luck, so he now also has a nickname: “Little Onion.” It’s not a stretch to say that Henry’s freedom mostly feels more dangerous than his time as a slave for Dutch Henry.

He befriends one of Brown’s sons, a childlike man named Frederick (Duke Davis Roberts), who is obsessed with the luck and knowledge conferred by spotting a Good Lord Bird, whose feather Brown had given to Henry. Brown’s other sons, especially Owen (Beau Knapp) begrudgingly take Henry/Onion along because of their dad’s mission. Owen is especially annoyed with his father’s aggressiveness and ability to pray for three hours before doing anything.

As Brown and his ragtag army look for Dutch Henry, Henry witnesses Brown cutting the head off a mostly innocent farmer who wouldn’t renounce slavery; he runs away and crosses paths with another slave named Bob (Hubert Point-Du Jour), who was almost ready to join him back with the “Old Man’s Army”, but got scared off at the last minute. Bob ends up being “freed” by Brown later on, as the army marches to face another set of troops who have kidnapped one of his sons and another army member.

What Shows Will It Remind You Of? The Good Lord Bird is hard to compare to other shows, since not only is it about such a unique historic personality in John Brown, but it’s a story from a “freed” slave’s perspective, one who isn’t sure being freed by Brown is such a great thing.

Our Take: As much as this story is Henry’s to tell, The Good Lord Bird hinges on the presence of John Brown. Hawke, along with Mark Richard, adapted James McBride’s novel for this miniseries, and it’s pretty obvious from the start that Hawke and the writing staff wrote Brown with the idea that Hawke is the only one who made sense to play the preacher.

Without Hawke’s incendiary performance as the self-righteous, slavery-hating, verse-spewing, at times befuddled Brown, The Good Lord Bird would have very little momentum behind it. Johnson does a credible job as the conflicted Henry, who says in voice over that slavery and freedom are like to poisonous snakes, “one points south, the other points north.” The reluctance and conflict are evident in his performance.

But, for now, the rest of the world around Brown and Henry is no different than any other 19th-century-set historically-based miniseries. Think Hatfields & McCoys, where most of the supporting characters are interchangeable, and the most of the more interesting ones are either killed or fade into the background. Things should clarify themselves as Henry is separated from Brown and then crosses paths with him again.

At a certain point, we can see this story mainly becoming centered on the two of them and everyone else — save for maybe Bob and Owen — falling to the wayside. That would make for a better story; the sweeping epics with seemingly dozens of characters generally don’t play well on TV, when the intimacy of a story focused on a few does. The hope is that, once the show zooms in on Henry and John Brown, things will fall into place. In the meantime, Hawke’s powerful on-screen presence and the show’s ability for showing Brown to be a complete nut job are holding things together.

Parting Shot: Brown goes off to find the Missouri Redshirts that killed Frederick, and also still get Dutch Henry. Everyone else stays behind. “And with that, he was gone, and wouldn’t see him again for a very long time,” says Henry in voice over.

Sleeper Star: Hubert Point-Du Jour is funny as Bob, whose main motivation is to not get himself killed. In the last scene, when Brown asks Bob to ride with him, Bob shakes his head slowly, in a manner that pretty much says “No effin way.” It’s the highlight of the episode.

Our Call: STREAM IT. Hawke’s titanic presence as John Brown makes The Good Lord Bird move along quickly and keeps its comedic undertones intact. The rest we can take or leave, but we’ll keep watching mainly because of the show’s star.

Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.

Source: https://decider.com/2020/10/05/the-good-lord-bird-showtime-review/

The Good Lord Bird

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