From Portside Culture <[email protected]>
Subject The Good Lord Bird Is a Historical Epic That Speaks of and for the Present
Date October 19, 2020 12:00 AM
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[The story is told through the eyes of a young, educated teenage
slave (Joshua Caleb Johnson) who dresses like a girl at Brown’s
request (for his own protection, supposedly) and is given the nickname
“Onion.” ] [[link removed]]


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Matt Zoeller Seitz
October 3, 2020
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_ The story is told through the eyes of a young, educated teenage
slave (Joshua Caleb Johnson) who dresses like a girl at Brown’s
request (for his own protection, supposedly) and is given the nickname
“Onion.” _

, William Gray/SHOWTIME


Ethan Hawke’s rage-filled croak as abolitionist John Brown in _The
Good Lord Bird_ is biblically awesome. It’s not just deeper and
more gravelly than his everyday speaking voice: It’s a geyser of
fury that seems to erupt from his innards like a demonic ectoplasm
escaping the body of a possessed soul in a horror movie. When Brown
launches into a sermon aimed at slavery-defending sinners, his hands
grip the butts of his six-shooters, and his face and body knot up and
twist like a hangman’s rope. His face grows red, then purple. His
veins throb. Spittle flies. His eye color seems to darken. None of
this is a special effect. It’s Hawke feeling Brown feeling the
presence of the Holy Spirit, and sounding like old Nick Nolte trying
to get through an angry monologue while being fed into a wood chipper.

Of course, Brown is also, to quote a supporting character, “nuttier
than a squirrel turd.” That’s not a diagnosis, nor evidence of the
character being wrong on the merits. It’s a personal observation
that happens to be accurate. But, to its credit, the seven-part
Showtime miniseries about Brown and his followers, which premieres
Sunday night, never reduces the character to a medical binary. It
treats the unhinging of Brown and his followers from white America’s
norms as a break from moral abnormality, and leaves room for the
possibility that if, as more than one account has suggested, John
Brown simply woke up one morning hearing the voice of God exhorting
him to free the slaves — even if it meant killing any man or woman
who supported slavery — maybe it was because the the entire country
had been mad for centuries, and terrorizing it was the only way to
bring it to its senses. Brown led a makeshift army into a guerilla war
for America’s soul (in this telling, the racially mixed group
includes his own adult sons, numerous freed slaves, a Native American,
and a Jew), and by the time he raided Harper’s Ferry in 1859, the
entire country had figured out that a peaceful resolution was
impossible. Nobody reading this needs to be reminded of all the ways
in which the Civil War shaped the country, right up to the present
moment, but we’ll settle for just one: The defenders of slavery in
1850s Kansas wore red.

Charismatic, terrifying, and weird as he is, John Brown is a glorified
supporting character in _The Good Lord Bird — _and that’s a big
part of what prevents the series from becoming an especially bloody
and dour version of a white-savior narrative. The story is told
through the eyes of a young, educated teenage slave (Joshua Caleb
Johnson) who dresses like a girl at Brown’s request (for his own
protection, supposedly) and is given the nickname “Onion.”
Onion’s voiceover narration is at once innocent and knowing. It
depicts the prelude to the Civil War, and the physical and emotional
experiences of servitude and oppression, from a faintly hopeful but
mostly cynical-to-resigned perspective, drawn from generations of
evidence that no matter what craziness white folks get themselves up
to, daily life for Black folks won’t change too much, so you’d
better take your joy where you can get it.

The effect is a bit like a time machine, a portal to fuller
understanding: not just what happened, but where it led and what else
it helped create. More so than other fictional retellings of Brown’s
crusade — including _Cloudsplitter _and _Raising Holy
Hell _— _The Good Lord Bird_, book and series, seem to speak both
of and for the present, and to view both the Black and white
characters as equal participants in history, even though one group
legally had absolute power over the other.

Faithfully adapted by executive producers Hawke and poet-novelist Mark
Richard from James McBride’s National Book Award–winning 2013
novel, the series draws equally on two schools of storytelling: the
raunchy, nasty, picaresque comic epic, exemplified by the likes
of _The Canterbury Tales_, _Candide_, and _Huckleberry Finn_; and
meandering, pot-scented Westerns like _Pat Garrett and Billy the
Kid_, _The Outlaw Josey Wales, _and the Coen brothers’ adaptation
of _True Grit_. The show’s screenwriters and directors (including
Albert Hughes, Darnell Martin, and Kevin Hooks, who started out as an
actor in the original _Sounder_, then directed a superb ABC-TV remake
30 years later) paint a savage, often corrosively funny portrait of
the battle between pro- and anti-slavery forces in so-called Bleeding
Kansas in the years before the Civil War, with everyone who hasn’t
picked a side and taken up arms getting torn up by history’s

Onion meets Brown in the opening scene of the series, a violent
confrontation between Brown and a slaver (David Morse) that ends with
Onion being orphaned and folded into the abolitionist’s traveling
militia. Brown presents himself to Onion as a mentor and father
figure, but that’s like finding out that Captain Ahab wants to adopt
you: It only seems like a good deal if you’re stuck on a ship on the
high seas and the alternative is taking your chances in a rowboat
surrounded by sharks. Traumatized and cowed as he is, Onion finds
Brown amusing and pathetic as often as he finds him horrifying and
thrilling. By the second episode of the series — which lets us spend
time with Onion on his own as he takes a job in a brothel in a
medium-size prairie town, and secretly teaches the Black madam,
Natasha Marc’s Pie, how to read — Onion starts to mature quickly,
developing a bleaker outlook and a survival sense that flirts with

Brown’s followers and sons aren’t gung ho about him all the time,
either. As Onion informs us, Brown’s followers come and go, their
ranks changing out almost every few months, because they get tired of
the bloodshed, start feeling homesick, lose interest or stamina, or
figure they’d better cut out at some point otherwise Brown will get
them killed. Also, Brown’s speeches go on for hours. His son, Owen
(Beau Knapp, brilliant as the craven, tormented cop in
Netflix’s _Seven Seconds_), is the first one to urge the old man to
wrap things up or finish the story on the road.

Brown was sometimes known as God’s Angry Man (as per the title of a
1932 novel about Brown by Leonard Ehrlich
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But while _The Good Lord Bird_ teases the possibility that God is
indeed on his side, or animating his rage, it has a Coen-esque sense
of when to stop giving out clues and err on the side of mystery. There
are moments in early episodes where Brown is saved from death not by
any innate skill (though he is handy with pistols) but because his
foes (including Steve Zahn, who shows up in episode two playing a
dumb, horny, racist cowboy in love with Pie) are not as smart as they
think, or have missed a crucial piece of information that might’ve
prevented them from dying stupidly. “God’s Lucky Man” might’ve
been just as apt a description, though the end of Brown’s life cuts
against that adjective. He’s certainly more blessed than Black
abolitionists would be under similar (armed) circumstances. When Lt.
Col Jeb Stuart (Wyatt Russell), a future Civil War legend, comes to
him alone to warn him to leave Kansas or be killed, it’s hard to
imagine John’s idol, the Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass
(played by Daveed Diggs in full-throated preacher mode), being treated
with similar care and understanding if he’d worn revolvers on his
hips. The series is not just aware of the irony: It stages its scenes
in a way that leads us to connect what happened back then with
what’s happening on American streets right now.

The series’s soundtrack, which includes a number of 20th and 21st
century recordings of blues, gospel, rhythm and blues, and soul songs,
helps a great deal in establishing a historical through line. Like the
end-credits music of _Deadwood_, and like certain soundtrack choices
on HBO’s subversive, wild-assed sci-fi drama_ Lovecraft Country_,
these music cues feel like much more than show-off-y anachronisms. To
some degree, all of the represented genres are rooted in the lived
experience of inequality, and the difficulty (and necessity) of trying
to either rise above that or momentarily escape it, through sin as
well as salvation. When music and imagery join forces — as in a
dazzling trial-and-hanging sequence in the Hooks-directed second
episode, scored to Nina Simone’s “I Shall Be Released,” which
includes an exchange of shots that makes it seem as if a condemned
Black abolitionist is looking into the future through the eyes of
Onion — _The Good Lord Bird_ speaks to the present as well as the
past. This is one of the most thoughtful and surprising series of an
already impressive year: a historical epic of real vision.

[[link removed]]. © 2020 VOX MEDIA, LLC. ALL

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