The Mischievous Irreverence of “The Good Lord Bird”Breaking News
tags: abolition, John Brown, television
Mercifully, the new Showtime miniseries “The Good Lord Bird,” a reimagining of the militant abolitionist John Brown’s doomed ride to Harpers Ferry, is not “woke.” Instead, it has an impish spirit of contrivance that is largely missing from contemporary antebellum historical fictions. Among its finest moments of cultural sacrilege is a sex farce starring Frederick Douglass, whom Brown (Ethan Hawke) insists on calling “the King of the Negroes.” Douglass, in a canny bit of casting, is played by Daveed Diggs, who originated the roles of Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway phenomenon, “Hamilton,” a retelling of American history that marked the apex of Obama-era artistic liberal agitprop. “The Good Lord Bird,” though, is not concerned with supplanting the mess and the mystery of history with upbeat coherence. Diggs’s Douglass is a playboy dandy flushed with Cognac, nesting on a couch at his Rochester mansion between his Black wife, Anna, and his German mistress, Ottilie.
Credit for the series’ mischief is due to James McBride, whose 2013 novel of the same name has been adapted with deep, sometimes stubborn fidelity by Mark Richard and Hawke, who are both, along with McBride, executive producers on the show. The novel is an idiosyncratic critique of history-making, an account of the prelude to emancipation told from the point of view of an eccentric, elderly man who likes to wear dresses. Henry (the Onion) Shackleford, born into slavery, recounts how, as a child, he came under the wing of the “old coot” John Brown and his ragtag army as they planned to take over a strategic U.S. military arsenal to hasten the holy war on the peculiar institution. McBride’s fictive Black witness allows him to rewrite Brown’s final, righteous exertions as tragicomedy.
The show is narrated by a young Henry (played by the newcomer Joshua Caleb Johnson), who, in the opening episode, launches into what sounds like a tall tale. In Osawatomie, Kansas, in 1858, a white stranger comes to his father for a shave. Henry, wearing a sack, sits at the stranger’s feet, shining his shoes. The stranger and Henry’s father bond over the good word, as the stranger recites Biblical passages with increasing fervor and starts to loudly preach the gospel of abolition. When Henry’s master arrives, and hears the stranger, he balks, asking the stranger to pledge his fidelity to the cause of slavery. The stranger—who is revealed to be John Brown—refuses, and opens fire. In the chaos, Henry’s father is accidentally killed, and Brown, as he flees, scoops up our narrator, pronouncing the child freed. But Brown has misheard Henry’s name and mistaken his sack for a dress; he calls him Henrietta.
Our narrator, a quippy angel of history, trails the “nigger-stealing” Brown and his troops as they provoke violent skirmishes with slaveholders, rich and poor, dumb and heralded, across the West and the East, and finally, fatefully, in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. In this picaresque tale, the dyad of Huck Finn and Nigger Jim is warped. To Henry, freedom is, at first, too new to compute—and, besides, isn’t traipsing around the backlands of Kansas with a bearded white man and his motley company just another kind of bondage? Master fed him well and didn’t beat him much. Brown is inscrutable to Henrietta (or Little Onion, the nickname the child earns after eating the strange man’s good-luck charm). With Brown, Henry cannot live according to his “true nature,” as he puts it; bereft of identity and of family, he wordlessly accepts a new dress that Brown gives him, living as the girl Brown mistakes him for. “Much of colored life was an act,” Henry says. “And the Negroes that did what they was told and kept they mouth shut lived the longest.”