John Brown lived before the term "white ally" existed, but he's the greatest one there ever was. The abolitionist devoted his life to and died fighting for the cause of freeing Black people from slavery, a few years before the Civil War. At a time when even the most ardent white abolitionists were mostly talk, Brown was a doer. His capture and execution after leading an unsuccessful slave revolt made him a martyr and tangibly led to the start of the Civil War. He didn't live to see his dream come to fruition, but abolition is still his legacy.
Brown is revered by many, especially on the political left, but he remains a controversial figure in American history. Some regard him as an insane religious zealot who killed in the name of God, while others believe he was another white man doing what he thought was best for Black people without including Black people in the decision. That's probably why it's taken this long for a large-scale version of a John Brown story, but Showtime's seven-episode miniseries The Good Lord Bird was worth the wait. It takes the criticisms of Brown into account -- he is crazy, and he doesn't always fully conceive of Black people as equals due to the time he lived in -- but it gives him the hero's story he deserves, with an extraordinary performance by Ethan Hawke.
The Good Lord Bird is a faithful adaptation of James McBride's National Book Award-winning novel of the same name, and tells its story through the eyes of a fictitious formerly enslaved boy named Henry Shackleford, also known as Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson), a named bestowed upon him because an onion is a good luck charm to Brown. Onion's father was accidentally killed while Brown was freeing them, and due to a misunderstanding Onion is unable to clear up, Brown believes he's a girl. So he lives with Brown and his abolitionist army as a girl, accompanying him on his adventures in battle and his attempts to roust support for the cause. Onion also has adventures of his own during times he's away from Brown, learning about how the world works and finding his place in it. It culminates in the attack on Harper's Ferry, where Brown and his wildly outnumbered forces unsuccessfully try to mount a slave rebellion and raid a federal armory.
The most revelatory part of The Good Lord Bird is how funny it is. It's fair to characterize it as a dramedy. McBride's novel is funny, and Hawke, who co-wrote the adaptation with Mark Richard, does a remarkable job of translating the novel's tone for the screen. The Good Lord Bird, in both book and limited series form, deals with slavery, the most tragic and horrific sin America has committed, and is funny. The way Hawke yells when he's full of the Holy Ghost is funny. The situations Onion's concealed identity gets him into are funny. It walks a fine line, but it comes down on the right side of it by never making jokes about slavery. The adaptation could have gone extraordinarily wrong, but it doesn't.
Hawke, the greatest actor of his generation who isn't usually part of the conversation about the greatest actor of his generation, gives yet another excellent performance in a career full of them. He's transformed by a big, bushy beard and blue contact lenses so pale they're almost white, and he's magnetic as Brown, full of love and warmth and empathy and fury and lunacy and rage all at once. And 15-year-old Johnson, who gets an "introducing" credit because this is absolutely a breakout performance that feels like the start of a successful career, is brave and charismatic as Onion, and equally adroit with comedy and drama.
The Good Lord Bird also benefits from being extremely timely, as conversations -- and action -- around racism in America feel more urgent than they have at almost any other time since the Civil War. White people in general are just now warming to the kind of radical liberation John Brown fought for, and he can be looked to as an inspiration and a cautionary example of what not to do. But the time was right for this story to be told, and it's told masterfully.
TV Guide Rating: 4.5/5
The Good Lord Bird premieres Sunday, Oct. 4 at 9/8c on Showtime.