▶︎ The Good Lord Bird (seven episodes) is on Sky Atlantic and Now TV.

It starts with high drama: John Brown is going to hang. For years he has been leading a violent gang of white men – some of them his own sons – and a handful of Black, freed slaves. It’s the Wild Bunch dedicated to the abolition of slavery by any means necessary.

From the scaffold, the series flashes back. It is the viewer who is left suspended, for seven episodes. We get taken on a picaresque ride through a short period of American history that proved both a trigger for the Civil War and a foretaste of its horrors. Taking the longer view, the aftermath of that war is still with us, via the civil rights movement of the 1960s, in the shape of Black Lives Matter.

The Good Lord Bird – based on the 2013 novel by James McBride – is set in the 1850s but resonates with the deep racial and class divisions of the present. It is a tale told in voiceover by a cross-dressing pubescent Black boy, Onion. Seen through his eyes and the quirks of his transvestism, John Brown is not just another white hero of abolition – or rather, it doesn’t matter that he is, because of the space the series gives to the Black presence in his enterprise and because Onion is a participant himself, not just a narrator.

Onion’s distinctive running commentary is at times reminiscent of Linda Manz’s narration in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978); and Joshua Caleb Johnson’s acting is every bit as good as Manz’s in Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue (1980). The orphaned Onion is often seen to best effect in the rough and ready but tender father-son (for which also read ‘father-daughter’) relationship he sustains with John Brown – a remarkable performance by Ethan Hawke, who is also a co-writer and executive producer of the series. Hawke’s Brown is like some full-bearded, angry and ageing Moses, a mountain man who comes down from on high, smashes the tablets of stone and replaces them with pistols. The script is filled with biblical references, and resonances both intended and unintended: as well as Moses, Brown is, like Abraham, prepared to make a sacrifice of his sons – for Abolition.

The Good Lord Bird (2020)

Whatever the logic of this biblical mash-up in the story, there was another Abraham in the wake of Brown – Abraham Lincoln. Not that the president appears in the series but we know from history that he went from finding Brown’s advocacy of violence a distracting irritant to later agreeing with it. Lincoln was played by Gregory Peck in the 1982 mini-series The Blue and the Grey, but it is another character played by Peck that Hawke’s performance evokes – Captain Ahab in John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956). Hawke’s Brown is every bit as driven and maniacal as Ahab, though in this case the White Whale is slavery. 

Although he is so over the top, even giving Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) a run for his money, Hawke’s performance is nuanced. He plays Brown as someone aware of his own theatricality and even absurdity, in keeping with the streak of dark disruptive humour that informs the series.

This self-dramatising Brown is in the tradition of Shakespearean tragic heroes. Othello is often singled out for what amounts to a form of narcissism, “the hero cheering himself up”, as T.S. Eliot put it. But if Othello wallows, Brown hasn’t got the time – cometh the Apocalypse, with the need to turn revolt into revolution, and his irregulars into a standing army. It will be constituted after a mass break-out of slaves once they have the news that Brown has attacked the federal military arsenal in Virginia so that with its plunder he can arm the runaways.

The Good Lord Bird (2020)

But the great plan goes awry with Onion, through no fault of his own, failing in his role as messenger ‘girl’. The guilt Onion feels adds a sombre, complex tone to a noble enterprise which, like most slave uprisings before it, turns into “a bloody farce” – the term a late-17th-century critic used to describe Othello.

The smaller roles in the series are all very well acted. The cinematography – as you’d expect from Peter Deming (Mulholland Drive, 2001) – mesmerises. So does the direction, but it is never flashy and is from several different very assured hands including Albert Hughes (Menace II Society, 1993) and the Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour. 

The original score by Jamison Hollister also uses songs from Elmore James, Mahalia Jackson and others. Foregrounding 20th-century blues and gospel is a creative anachronism, but it chimes with the way the script makes connections between past and present, never glibly. A great example is the use of the Nina Simone version of I Shall Be Released over the hanging of Sibonia (Crystal Lee Brown) and her slave co-conspirators in a plotted uprising. The intercutting of the scaffold – shades of John Brown’s – with the onlookers, including the prostitute Pie (Natasha Marc), plays with time in the manner of a Sam Peckinpah montage. The Good Lord Bird is frequently that good – in this particular scene, as strangely stirring as Slim Pickens’s dying sheriff ‘knocking on heaven’s door’ in Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid (1973). 

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