Based on the novel by James McBride, THE GOOD LORD BIRD is a miniseries that tells the story of a young slave who is swept up with John Brown toward the Abolitionist’s violent fate at Harper’s Ferry, where he hoped to end slavery with an armed insurrection. I found the show uneven and at times tonally confusing, though it builds up to a very powerful finish.
First, let’s look at the historical John Brown. He became a national figure during the Bleeding Kansas period of violence in the territory over whether it would enter the Union as a free or slave state. While most abolitionists also believed in pacifism, Brown saw the slaveholder as morally sick and tied to an economic system that could only be reformed by destroying it. As a chosen instrument of God, he believed he would be the destroyer. After fighting in several pitched battles in this state-level civil war, he came up with a plan to capture the Federal armory at Harper’s Ferry and arm slaves to fight for their freedom. While this plan failed bloodily, with Robert E. Lee snuffing out the rebellion, it became a major catalyst for the Civil War that finally ended this horrific system.
So who was John Brown? A man who understood slavery as so utterly corrupting it could only be solved with bloodshed? A rabid religious fanatic hell bent on violence? A fool? THE GOOD LORD BIRD starts off with these questions in a story largely told through the eyes of Henry, a slave boy. After a fight with pro-slavery men, he is taken along by Brown to join his little army. As Henry is young, Brown mistakenly believes he’s a girl (and his good luck charm), and Henry plays along with it in the belief it’s keeping him alive.
I said the show was tonally confusing for me, and I’ll explain that. The first few episodes at times comes across as farce, comedy, and serious drama. I’m all for a good farce–I loved George MacDonald Fraser’s richly historically detailed FLASHMAN AND THE ANGEL OF THE LORD, which portrays Brown as being a morally upright and violent lunatic–but while Brown is fair game for a comic take, slavery isn’t for me.
I haven’t read the book, but watching the show, I wondered why the story had to be told from Henry’s point of view at all, as the character adds very little to the story aside from observing. Though Henry was a slave, he’s very young, and he considered his job–helping his father around a barber shop–as being easier than the life of a guerilla. On the slave side, the better mouthpieces are Frederick Douglas, who believes slavery could be solved without violence, and Harriett Tubman, who believes it could be solved with it. After watching extremely powerful stories like UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, I think Henry could have been brought much more to the story with a different background and taken a much stronger role in the conflict and theme. And while the show isn’t supposed to be a direct history lesson, it easily could have accommodated more of the background and events of Bleeding Kansas, a fascinating historical moment in the USA.
As the show proceeds, the comedy aspects fade away to the violent conclusion, which all plays out in a very satisfying way. The final scenes with Brown are stirring and powerful.
The acting is very good in this. Joshua Caleb Johnson brings a lot to the role of Henry, but Ethan Hawke’s John Brown steals the show, chewing every scene he’s in. It was clearly the role of a lifetime for him, and his acting goes a long way to make Brown not only come alive but appear larger than life.
So overall, I found THE GOOD LORD BIRD uneven but quite satisfying, particularly in how it wrapped up. Not highly recommended, but I’d recommend it just the same.