Roush Review: A Bloody Crusade for Freedom in ‘The Good Lord Bird’

The Good Lord Bird Ethan Hawke Showtime
William Gray/SHOWTIME
The Good Lord Bird (William Gray/SHOWTIME)

If a rapping musical Hamilton can bring new life to the Founding Fathers, why not use a fictional slave boy disguised as a girl to tell the rousing story of pre–Civil War abolitionist zealot John Brown?

This irreverent and audacious approach won The Good Lord Bird author James McBride a 2013 National Book Award. In adapting the novel into a boldly entertaining and ultimately moving seven-part limited series for Showtime, producer and star Ethan Hawke does justice to the legend, and to history.

The Good Lord Bird Ethan Hawke Joshua Caleb Johnson

(Credit: William Gray/SHOWTIME)

Eyes blazing with biblical fervor, quoting scripture amid slaughter, Hawke is transfixing as a savage 19th-century Moses who devotes — and gives — his life to the cause of emancipation. Brown is at times terrifying, comic, delusional, even deranged as he embarks on his mad crusade. “Thousands will heed the call to our trumpet!” he declares, then pauses to let reality seep in. “Did you bring a trumpet? Anyone have a trumpet?”

We see John Brown mostly through the eyes of the story’s narrator: newly orphaned slave Henry (a strikingly solemn Joshua Caleb Johnson), whom Brown mistakes at first meeting for a girl, then takes this ward, whom he christens Onion, under his wing. Onion’s subterfuge, hiding his gender beneath dresses and bonnets, gives this young observer a unique perspective on Antebellum society: “Much of colored life was an act,” Onion muses. “And the Negroes that did what they was told and kept they mouth shut lived the longest.”

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Ethan Hawke Explains the Important Message of 'The Good Lord Bird'

Ethan Hawke brings James McBride's award-winning comic novel to life as fabled abolitionist John Brown.

In a picaresque journey evoking a wry, humanistic Mark Twain by way of a florid Quentin Tarantino, Onion encounters historical figures including a very self-impressed Frederick Douglass (Hamilton‘s Daveed Diggs). While acknowledging his benefactor’s madness, Onion comes to admire this flawed savior whose tragic stand at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, helped to ignite the Civil War.

The Good Lord Bird, Limited Series Premiere, Sunday, October 4, 9/8c, Showtime