Interview: Ethan Hawke and author James McBride on The Good Lord Bird
In The Good Lord Bird, now available to binge on Showmax, four-time Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke (Before Sunset and Boyhood) stars as militant abolitionist John Brown, the little-known historical figure credited with instigating the American Civil War.
The Guardian says Hawke is “astonishing as Brown, putting in what may be a career-best performance,” and Financial Times says, “Ethan Hawke’s grizzled Brown, equal parts crazy and endearing, erupts onto the screen with coat flapping and crusty eyes blazing.” Expect Golden Globe and Emmy nominations to follow…
Brown’s story is told from the perspective of Henry “Onion” Shackleford (relative newcomer Joshua Caleb Johnson), an unwillingly freed slave who joins Brown’s family of abolitionist soldiers.
A satirical and unexpectedly funny drama about a very un-funny subject, The Good Lord Bird is at #18 on Rotten Tomatoes’ best TV of 2020, with a 97% critics rating, and #5 on Rolling Stone’s list of the best TV of 2020.
“The series takes a brutish time in history frequently presented dryly out of respect, and dares successfully to capture the uproarious insanity of a righteous, outgunned rebel,” says Salon.
The cast includes Grammy winner Daveed Diggs (Blindspotting, Hamilton, Snowpiercer), three-time Emmy winner Keith David (Jackie Robinson, Community), Emmy nominee David Morse (The Hurt Locker, Escape at Dannemora, The Green Mile), Critics Choice winner Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood), Sundance winner Steve Zahn (Dallas Buyers Club, War for the Planet of the Apes), and Ethan Hawke’s daughter with Uma Thurman, Maya Hawke (Stranger Things), as well as South African actress Lex King (American Princess).
The Good Lord Bird is executive produced by Ethan and Ryan Hawke and triple Oscar nominee and Emmy winner Jason Blum (Blackkklansman and Get Out), as well as author James McBride, who penned the 2013 National Book Award-winning novel it’s based on, with judges calling him “a voice as comic and original as any we have heard since Mark Twain.”
It’s understandable that Brown isn’t widely known as an historical figure outside of the US, but it’s surprising to learn that many Americans aren’t familiar with this important figure in their own history either.
Brown’s story was “covered up by those who wrote American history”
As James McBride, author of the National Book Award-winning novel on which the show is based, and who is also an executive producer, “He became a figure of mythic proportions, whose story was eventually covered up by those who wrote American history, in part because the subject of race was, and continues to be, something that we find very difficult to talk about.”
“Most people are not taught very much about John Brown,” says Hawke. “Because if you teach John Brown then you are teaching that the civil war was over slavery, and it’s upsetting to realise that this country that you love has been built on really damning crimes.”
“He was a real white man”
The Good Lord Bird is no white saviour story either. As Onion says of Brown, “Whatever he believed, he believed. It didn’t matter to him whether it was really true or not. He just changed the truth till it fit him. He was a real white man.”
Though Brown’s mission is unquestionably a righteous one, his biblical, frequently murderous rage and his casual acceptance of death and devastation as the costs of his God-given cause make him a difficult hero.
Brown tears up the countryside freeing slaves, but, for many, “free and dead” isn’t on their agenda. However charismatic Brown’s beliefs may be, Onion’s goal isn’t freedom or justice, it’s staying alive, and his chances of winding up dead by a Confederate bullet or a Union one are roughly the same in the crossfire that is life with John Brown. The man is a liability.
“Like all of us, he wants human equality”
But, Hawke says, “When you read his letters, even from jail, before he was hung, he’s definitely sane. He knew what he was dying for. People would say to him, ‘But you got your sons killed,’ and he would say, ‘Someday, this country will be ashamed of slavery, and they’ll never be ashamed of my sons.’ Like all of us, he wants human equality. Unlike all of us, he was willing to do something about it.”
“I’m not playing some library version of John Brown,” Hawke adds. “It’s a great honour, and a responsibility to talk about John Brown, about what a beauty he was, what a nutjob he was. It lets you see that whole horrible time period with an air of humanity.”
“When some things are so bad, you have to laugh at them”
It’s clear that Hawke has a deep respect for Brown, although, as a nonviolent person, he doesn’t condone his methods. He’s also at pains to emphasise that this is not a factual account but a good, old-fashioned yarn. And, he believes, McBride’s compassion and humour are what makes it work.
“When I wrote The Good Lord Bird, the story I wanted to tell was about a little boy who meets a crazy white man… John Brown is the greatest abolitionist, who started the civil war,” says McBride, but adds, “What I was always concerned about was how would we communicate him to the audience? This story is so hard to tell, that the only way to tell it, really, is with humour. When some things are so bad, you have to laugh at them. That’s what makes good stories… If we can use history to laugh at ourselves, then that gives us an opening to dialogue with one another.”
In the character of Onion, McBride says, “there was an effort to play this narrative out in a way that was childlike, because race is really hard to talk about for all of us. Onion helped us find that innocence that makes us special. Ultimately, it’s the commonality of the human experience that drives this piece.”
“It speaks to the present as well as the past”
Like Brown himself, The Good Lord Bird is sure to stir up some trouble and get people talking, which, we think, would please his spirit righteously.
“The Good Lord Bird speaks to the present as well as the past,” says Vulture, calling it, “One of the most thoughtful and surprising series of an already impressive year: a historical epic of real vision.”
Or, as AV Club put it, “Frankly, it rules.”