Novelists and filmmakers spent centenaries depicting America’s gravest transgressions. Ethan Hawke is now among them. “The Good Lord Bird.” It’s a good one; it has a snug lid and keeps your coffee hot. Virginia is home to vast fields, farmlands, rivers and mountains; it’s a perfect setting for many American stories, mostly what American films try to tell. “The Good Lord Bird” housed in an extinct retention centre.
The seven-episode series starring Ethan Hawke tries to reciprocate a powerful chapter in American history. By bringing the cruel abolitionist John Brown onto our screens, and our political discourse.
The “Good Lord Bird” shoot took place outside Richmond. The series adapted James McBride’s National Book Award-winning novel. McBride’s book tells the perspective of Henry (Onion) Shackleford. He is a light-skinned enslaved 10-year-old boy who works with his father at Kansas-territory tavern. The scene opens at a barbershop when a mysterious stranger appears. This stranger turns out to be none other than the fearsome white abolitionist John Brown. He starts off a gunfight. Onion’s father gets shot, and in turmoil, Brown “liberates” the little boy, who he thinks is a girl. He escapes with Onion to the campsite where his ragtag abolitionist army sets forth. Onion goes along with the mistake, too scared to correct the old gunfighter. He then spends the next couple of years performing along with Brown’s outfit as “Henrietta.”
Opening of The Good Lord Bird authenticates the central characters and then the plot. It uses the oldest narrative technique: the flashback. “What a beautiful country,” says John Brown, right before his execution by hanging.
America back in the times of slavery and racism.
The Good Lord Bird goes way back to the 1850s and starts in The Bleeding Kansas, where John Brown rescues Henry Shackleford from slavery and swears to free out every person of colour in America. Onion joins his clandestine mission unwillingly and gets a redemptive arc much later in the series. Through Onion’s eyes, we see the first-hand account of White people supremacy and the Blacks’ insurrection with Brown leading them at the front, resulting in a slave revolt in Harpers Ferry, blurring the lines between justice and revenge.
McBride excels at viewing the “peculiar institution” of slavery from multiple perspectives. In his novel, the slave owners are just as often dirty and down on their luck — men who are barely making way for themselves — as they are grandiose, self-important and lacking humanity. With his children to feed, business to run and land to manage, Onion reflects of his former owner, “the fact is, looking back, Dutch Henry was something like a slave himself.” Similarly, McBride’s version of John Brown is a complex character — a man whose absolute certainty of mission combines with a bumbling presence, and whose ability to reframe every misfortune as a Gift from the Lord sits alongside a savage capacity for bloodshed.
The Good Lord Bird also talks about ‘Sexual Awakening’.
This series is as much about John Brown as much it shows about Henry Shackleford’s political and sexual awakening. “There are several advantages of being a girl,” he states in episode one. But his manly temptations are put to the test after meeting a gorgeous, black sex worker named Pie in Pikesville. She successfully arouses him; however, she is naturally out of the bag. There, Shackleford not only gets a sexual awakening. He also witnesses the discrimination happening amongst the Blacks: the slightly. Written only for the lack of a better sounding word. “Brown” coloured people find jobs inside the master’s house either as sex workers or domestic help.
In contrast, the others have to toil under the scorching sun — the oppressed gets further oppressed by the oppressed. How would John Brown, with his relatively tiny group of fighters, bring about a revolution for slaves in America? “But that has happened, right? Remember Spartacus,” says Brown. The ‘how’ is where the juice is and should have ideally been the series’ angle instead of ‘why’.
It results in a quiet and poignant exchange. The makers smartly subvert their eyes when Onion finds a chance to speak up about what his newfound freedom actually meant to him — “I can finally get out of women’s dress now,” he says in an opening portion. That part itself is a statement on the choices ‘imposed’ on them by the Whites. How is he, or anyone they rescued for that matter, a freeman/woman when Brown’s looming shadow continues to accompany them? Isn’t that a form of oppression, too? What do abolition and revolution mean when everyone has a say except the Blacks?
John Brown’s Image In The Good Lord Bird:
Was John Brown a man with saint purpose, a terrorist, a ‘White Saviour’, a prophet, or a civil war? It will be better to leave that argument out, for, history, as they say, is the best judge. What John Brown was and perhaps is, is a speck of the light that cast out the darkness in America, eventually leading it to the Civil War. For some Americans, John Brown’s character looked similar to Abraham Lincoln, even today. Of that analogy, I ain’t sure, but what I’m confident of is that American democracy emerged from these cauldron moments of history.