Review: ‘The Good Lord Bird’ Offers Satirical Look at John Brown

"The Good Lord Bird," a Showtime mini-series, tells the story of abolitionist John Brown (Ethan Hawke), right, through the eyes of Henry Shackleford, an enslaved young boy nicknamed Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson) who becomes a member of Brown’s army. (Photo: Showtime)

Everybody got God on their side in the war. Trouble is, God ain’t telling nobody who He’s for.”

–Henry “Onion” Shackleford

“The Good Lord Bird,” a powerful mini-series based on James McBride’s eponymous book, tells the story of abolitionist John Brown, whose failed raid on Harpers Ferry helped ignite the Civil War. It is told from the viewpoint of Henry Shackleford, an enslaved young boy nicknamed Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson) who becomes a member of Brown’s army.

Not only does Onion have to struggle with a case of mistaken identity when Brown thinks he’s a girl, but he must also deal with trying to survive in a dress. The mini-series, which is set to premiere at 9 p.m. Sunday on Showtime, covers topics of racism, gender and slavery while adding hints of comedy.

During an interview, producer Ethan Hawke revealed he was reading McBride’s award-winning book, “The Good Lord Bird,” and laughing hysterically when his wife, Ryan, questioned how such a serious topic would be funny.

“When I finished McBride’s novel, I was just blown away,” Hawke said. “I thought that he used satire in a way that opened my heart and opened my brain. And so that’s part of why we wanted to make this show.”

In addition to portraying Brown, Hawke co-wrote and executive produced the series alongside his wife, McBride and Mark Richard. “The particular genius of James McBride in his writing is he uses satire to allow you into history in a way that makes it emotional, exciting.”

“If we could learn from history, we would be a lot better off than we are,” he added. “We’re not making a documentary. We’re making a work of art.”

McBride said the thought of his novel being adapted for screen never crossed his mind. He was focused on telling an “entertaining” and “dynamic” story that is “full of life.”

“When I wrote the book, I wasn’t thinking of making a movie; I just wrote the book,” he said. “I think if you write a book and you’re thinking of making a movie of it, you can forget it.”

McBride also hadn’t envisioned a cast to portray his characters, but he is pleased with the selection. “A lot of the people who were cast are people that Ethan had worked with or knew about,” he said. “I think people will be knocked out with some of the acting that they see.”

The acting is what makes John Brown appear so daring and resilient. The balance comes from Johnson as the narrator and Tony Award winner Daveed Diggs as abolitionist Frederick Douglass. “It’s such a specific look at history,” Diggs said of what he described as McBride’s “incredible take” on Douglass.

Portraying the events in the story seemed effortless for the cast. Johnson, who has appeared in “Black-ish” and “Animal Kingdom,” explained that he drew on previous performances to portray Onion. “Every role I did prior to this role helped in a way, just by giving me more experience on set and different techniques I learned from the various people I’ve worked with,” the 15-year-old explained. “This role is just so much different than anyone can really imagine.”

With the climate of unrest in the world now, “The Good Lord Bird” is a refreshing story that gives a new light to the history of John Brown, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

Jade Boone writes about television and film for 101Magazine.net and the Howard University News Service.