There was a literate man who believed that sometimes “Sword is mightier than a pen.” He was not entirely right, but as the nature of the Universe, he was not entirely wrong either. This is the tale of the abolitionist who ignited the American Civil War (1861), Osawatomie John Brown. The Good Lord Bird created by Ethan Hawke showcases John H. Brown and his tales on screen, for much it was much needed.
The Good Lord Bird is a 7-part limited TV Series executive produced by Ethan Hawke (actor) and Mark Richard (writer). It is based on the book of the same name written by James McBride. The series is period based and narrated from the point of view of a fictional character, Henry Shackleford (called as Onion in the story).
A distinguishing element in the narrative that elevates the visual experience is that in spite of being a historical drama, it isn’t stuffed with heavy facts. On the contrary, it is marvellously blended with quirky dialogues and eccentric characters (like John Brown played by Ethan Hawke) which are mind-blowing. Before coming to why the series is so great at telling its story, let’s discuss a summary of the story.
‘The Good Lord Bird’ Summary
Why make History Boring when you have Dark Comedy at your disposal? After all, all those facts are heavily loaded with fiction. Why not them a little?
The Good Lord Bird begins with one such satirical introductory note, “All of this is true. Most of it happened.” It is a twisted piece of words that can be perceived in a lot of ways. I let you make your own assumptions but for me, it was an example of smart writing, often termed as Satire.
The series then depicts its protagonist John Brown who is going to be hanged. The visual is spectated by the narrator, Henry Shackleford. Henry is sure that many of us might not have heard the tale of John Brown, and thus, he takes us on the ride to narrate his story.
The narrative moves back 2 years earlier, 1858, when in Bleeding Kansas, Henry, still a teenager, meets John Brown who came to his father’s shop to get a shave. John inspires the ambience of the barbershop to put an end to slavery but his speeches are not well taken by the crowd, especially the slave owner of Henry and his father, Dutch Henry.
In an intensive fight, Henry loses his father, his name and his sexuality. John Brown, an over eccentric man, who never listens to anyone, thinks Henry is called Henrietta and takes him for a sweet black girl. John takes Henry under his wings and that starts the championship of these two extraordinary characters.
Through Henry (nicknamed as Onion by John) we learn about John. John is an intensely religious man who believes that speeches, sermons and petitions are of no use in the war to end slavery and thus he feels violence is necessary.
The narrative thus further explores Henry and his violent measure to put a dent in the established structure of white supremacy and igniting a war against slavery on American Lands. We already know the end. The first scene depicts that John is going to be hanged, but how he ends up there, as a celebrated hero, is a tale worth watching.
Quirky John Brown
Is there anything Ethan Hawke can’t do? From playing a tragic priest in First Reformed (2017) to Waggish abolitionist John Brown, Ethan shows the range of his performance.
In The Good Lord Bird, Ethan is the centre of attraction. Any scene, where his presence is not visible falls flat. But Ethan’s mere presence brings about an energy that is so engaging that your attention refuses to leave the screen. Ethan is not associated with the series as an actor but he has also created the series for ShowTime.
A few memorable and hysterical traits of John Brown’s include his long prayers that sometimes extend from noon to sunset. His motley crew prays that John doesn’t start chanting prayers anytime. Onion quotes, “The Old Man (John) was a plain terror in the prayer department.”
Another farcical characteristic is his obsession with Biblical Verses. Any man who narrates such verses to him becomes his instant ally. John is like an overly enthusiastic religious man, who believes that every man has been endowed some duty. John’s obligation is to put an end to slavery that is against the will of holy lord Jesus. He feels and believes that every man is born equal and should remain so. All humans are children of God.
These obsessions are explored comically in the series, that are though sometimes dark, but sometimes really entertaining.
Wild Flight to Free the Slaves
Good Lord Bird or Great God Bird is an Ivory-billed woodpecker that is considered a source of enlightenment by John Brown’s fearsome army. It is used symbolically in the series. However, the prominence quickly fades after the first episodes, it’s minor presence is sustained. Thus, it could be called a proper symbolic or metaphorical integration.
However, references of birds have been made in the narrative from time to time, because slavery is synonymous to caging someone. Whether it’s a bird or a man. In one of the most intense scenes of the second episode, where a traitor (a black woman) is going to be hanged for creating fake passes for the slaves, she speaks a line stating, “Sometimes a sparrow got to fly wild for it to set free.”
The narrative theme of the series lies integrated into the scene. In the scene, the woman questions the Preacher that in God’s eyes we are all equal. Then why my family and children are slaves and you, a white man, is a free man. From where did this categorization come from? The preachers fail to answer her dilemma. Obviously, she is taken by force and sentenced, that puts an argument that these white folks can use arms to suppress but John Brown is an outlaw for using arms against the oppressor?
The black community and John Brown related on these same lines, that if God created us equal then why the hell this slavery is going on? Where a particular community is deprived of their human rights?
When John ignites the revolution to pick up arms against the tyrannical white supremacists, each folk from the black community feel violence is the need of the hour. Thus a single scene is so layered that from thereon, each scene demonstrates its cause and effect. It is some marvellous writing there.
Screenwriters should also try to implement one such scene that becomes a backbone of their whole narrative. Every great film or series does have this impacting scene.
Identity Crisis – Core of Characterization
Only a well-written narrative paves way for some excellent characterization and character arcs. John’s character is not much layered. His arc is nothing mind-blowing but it is justified because he has to maintain a certain kind of persona/ energy in each scene. However, for Onion or Henry, the character arc is well-plotted.
In one of the striking scenes in Canada, Onion is suffering from a dilemma, whether to support John or leave him. An African political activist, Harriet Tubman addresses Onion’s concern. She tells him, “When you slave a person, you slave the one in front and the one behind.” Thus, slavery initiates a chain of events that leads to enslavement spreading over a generation, group and sometimes a country. It impacts cannot be traced to a single person and it is not a fight of individualism. John is not trying to become a hero but a spark that would ignite a fire in millions who are afraid to fight for their own rights.
For Onion, who is still a teenager, individualistic gains and pursuit are more important and thus it is extremely hard for him to understand John’s actions. He can easily leave and live his life as a free black man and dress like a man, but with John, he has to live like a woman and read the Bible every day in which he isn’t interested. There is an ongoing conflict inside Onion that pains him. These confusions become a part of major drama and comedy in the series. Characters conflicted and torn apart between an individual or collective goals are a treat to write and watch. Onion shows traits of it. Even John tells him, “Having doubts doesn’t make us weak. It makes us more human.” Hence, a character given internal conflict is more human and engaging.
There are many other characters, even John himself, that shows signs of Identity Crisis. Like a black political reformer, Frederick Douglass asks John, how can he understand the pain of slavery when John has never lived in bondage or have never been savaged? John expresses a marvellous piece saying, “I cannot speak for the enslaved. But I can speak for the depths and shallow of the slavers’ hearts.” John has felt those emotions very personally and strongly in his childhood and thus verbalises that Slavery is the exploitation of human rights that can be experienced by any human being who has remorse left in his soul.
John is often questioned on why he being a white man is fighting the war for a community he doesn’t belong to and John is trying to explain each time that this is not a community but a group of people who are human beings and all children of God, they are his brother and sisters. John’s character was invested in many other conflicts to move the story forward and keep the scene engaging, hence, a major character arc and evolution is visible in Onion only. Other characters are easily forgettable except John and Onion.
There are many narratives in the form of films and television that revolve around the same theme, but what makes The Good Lord Bird stand out? It creates a balance between drama and comedy/dark comedy that doesn’t burden the viewers with too many historical facts. A quick distinction would be Lincoln (2012) – heavy factual drama and Django Unchained (2012) – entirely fictionalised for entertainment. But The Good Lord Bird is both fictional and factual that means it maintains the soul of truth without being boring. Writing such a screenplay is hard, but not impossible., this series is a perfect example.
There were few scenes where I literally fell off the chair. Mostly The Good Lord Bird is a dramedy that maintains humor in setup and then getting on serious business later. Thus, the first 3 episodes the quirkiness of John’s character. Onion’s pursuit to hide his sexuality is hysterical too. A special mention to a scene where Frederick Douglass and Onion are drinking, discussing over the fact whether to help John or not. Frederick’s two wives pay him a visit during the conversation, while Onion spectates. The turn of events in that particular scene would kill you with humor. That is literally a memorable and well-written comical sequence.
The Good Lord Bird is a hell lot of an interesting tale and I don’t think any viewers should miss this great work of fiction based on true events. Barack Obama by the end of 2020 released a list of his favourite shows of the years and The Good Lord Bird had a mention in it. Even the beloved president is watching, then why don’t you. Binge it, it’s limited. You won’t be disappointed.
The Good Lord Bird is streaming on Voot and ShowTime.
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