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The Good Lord Bird Tells the Unexpectedly Funny Story of the Abolitionist John Brown

It's somehow the first show about the important and controversial American hero

Liam Mathews

The cast and producers of The Good Lord Bird, the upcoming Showtime limited series executive-produced by and starring Ethan Hawke as the abolitionist John Brown, appeared at the Television Critics Association winter press tour on Monday to preview the antebellum dramedy. The series was originally scheduled to premiere in February, but has been pushed back to a later date to be determined.

Hawke was joined by James McBride, the author of the National Book Award-winning semi-historical 2013 novel on which the limited series is based, and Joshua Caleb Johnson, who plays Onion, a 14-year-old boy who joins John Brown's abolitionist army after Brown frees him from slavery. But due to a misunderstanding, Onion lives as a girl. The story is told through his eyes as he rides with the courageous, heroic, and completely insane white anti-slavery crusader John Brown through Bleeding Kansas, to meet with Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs), and eventually to Brown's ill-fated raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia, where Brown was unsuccessful at starting a slave uprising as he intended, but successful at helping start the Civil War. Onion is a fictional creation, but a lot of the events he attends and people he meets were real. And the show, like the novel, is surprisingly, iconoclastically funny.

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"This is not the typical story of the white savior that comes to save African American people," McBride said. "This is the African American perspective on the white savior that comes to save us. So it's a lot different. And that's why it's so funny. It's a story of caricature."

"I remember when the book came out, some people were like, 'Wait, you can make jokes about this?'" Hawke said. "'You can make this funny? This story that's touching the great national wound?' Yes, you can. And when you do that, when you do it with love and wit and silliness and intelligence, and don't ignore the pain, you can do something original."

Hawke was asked how, as the face of the show, he navigated the idea that the show might be perceived as coming from a white man's point of view, even if that's not the case.

"A white dude had to play John Brown," Hawke said. "John Brown was white. I wanted to play him." But beyond that, Hawke said that his role in the adaptation was making McBride's novel fit the screen, not creating the vision. McBride is black, and the show is a faithful adaptation of his novel. "I've always seen this as James' vision. I would have never come up with this idea. And I have no ownership of the vision of this. I have no authority over it. I have a great passion and love for this book that I read."

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The story of John Brown has never been the focus of a major production like this before, largely because being honest about John Brown makes white people uncomfortable. "What's fascinating about John Brown, and I think part of why he doesn't get taught, is if you really teach John Brown then you really have to understand how much white America understood about what was happening in human bondage and how terrible it was," Hawke said. "And people like the idea that maybe people didn't know." He compared Brown to people who put their lives on the line to fight climate change, who are seen as radicals now but are on the right side of history.

"I did a movie last year, First Reformed... my character was a pastor, and he was teaching young people about the Underground Railroad, and how the Underground Railroad in their time were seen as radicals and zealots and criminals," Hawke said. "And this, my character at that time was taking on the environmental cause and really seeing how the light of history often changes what the definition of 'zealot' is. John Brown is somebody who's clearly on the right side of history who went to extreme measures for his beliefs, and you can find them all over the globe, you'll find people, oftentimes they're on the wrong side of history, and that's the problem with violence. If you really study this character, he asks a lot of you philosophically, because he challenges why somebody would accept the unacceptable."

The Good Lord Bird is coming to Showtime in 2020.

Ethan Hawke and Joshua Caleb Johnson, The Good Lord Bird

Ethan Hawke and Joshua Caleb Johnson, The Good Lord Bird

Albert Hughes, Albert Hughes/SHOWTIME

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