‘The Good Lord Bird’: Ethan Hawke Explains the Important Message of the Series

Joshua Caleb Johnson Ethan Hawke Good Lord Bird Onion John Brown
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Kevin Lynch/SHOWTIME

Actor-producer Ethan Hawke gives a powerful performance as fabled abolitionist John Brown in Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird — but don’t expect a reverent biography of the volatile and zealous anti-slaver best remembered for his failed 1859 raid on the Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, armory.

Based on James McBride’s 2013 comic novel about Brown’s last years, the seven-part series “follows a lineage similar to Mark Twain, Quentin Tarantino, and the Coen Brothers,” says Hawke. Meaning there’s plenty of violence and mockery of prominent characters, including the Black hero Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs). 

The rollicking story is amusingly narrated by the fictional Henry Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson, left, with Hawke), known as Onion, whom Brown frees from bondage. “John Brown is so out to lunch, he mistakes Onion for a girl and gives him his daughter’s dress, inadvertently giving him his tool for survival,” says Hawke.

Despite its historical liberties and broad comedy, the series is serious about its message, addressing what Hawke describes as “our country’s greatest wounds with love, humanity, and the healing power of humor.”

Daveed Diggs The Good Lord Bird Frederick Douglass

Daveed Diggs as Frederick Douglass (William Gray/SHOWTIME)

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