‘The Good Lord Bird’ Is Good TV. But Mix Art and Slavery at Your PerilBreaking News
tags: abolitionism, John Brown, television, The Good Lord Bird
I still have the travel coffee mug I received as a gift last October, when I visited the set of Showtime’s new limited series “The Good Lord Bird.” It’s a good one; it has a snug lid and keeps coffee hot. It was given to me upon my arrival by an enthusiastic man from the Virginia Film Office, as part of the state’s bid to brand itself as a prime filming location. Virginia is home to vast fields, farmlands, rivers and mountains; it’s a perfect setting for many American stories, which is mostly what American films try to tell.
Of course, many of those fields and hills — the vast rolling plantations and, later, the prison farms — were trod and worked by enslaved people. Indeed, the production office for “The Good Lord Bird” was housed in a defunct detention center. I spent childhood summers in the region, and it has always been hard for me to travel through its terrain without thinking almost exclusively of the enslaved ancestors of mine who toiled and bled on such land. This is why I have mixed feelings about the mug. It features the new slogan for the Virginia Film Office, which is a riff on the state’s slogan: It says “Virginia Is for Film Lovers.” Then, underneath, in smaller letters: “Great locations since 1607.”
The “Good Lord Bird” shoot was taking place outside Richmond, adapting James McBride’s National Book Award-winning novel. McBride’s book tells the story of Henry (Onion) Shackleford, a light-skinned enslaved boy of 10 who is working with his father at a dusty Kansas-territory tavern and barbershop when a mysterious stranger appears. This stranger turns out to be none other than the fearsome white abolitionist John Brown, who instigates a gunfight with Onion’s owner. Onion’s father is killed, and in the chaos Brown “liberates” the boy, who he assumes is a girl, absconding with Onion to the campsite where his ragtag abolitionist army is posted. Too scared to correct the old gunfighter, Onion goes along with the mistake, and spends the next couple of years riding along with Brown’s outfit as “Henrietta.”
McBride excels at viewing the “peculiar institution” of slavery from multiple perspectives. In his novel, the slave owners are just as often dirty and down on their luck — men who are barely making a way for themselves — as they are grandiose, self-important and lacking humanity. With his children to feed, business to run and land to manage, Onion reflects of his former owner, “fact is, looking back, Dutch Henry was something like a slave himself.” Similarly, McBride’s version of John Brown is a complex character — a man whose absolute certainty of mission combines with a bumbling presence, and whose ability to reframe every misfortune as a Gift from the Lord sits alongside an absolutely savage capacity for bloodshed.