the purpose of The Good Lord Bird – the seven-part anti-slavery Western
from Ethan Hawke – is to educate about American abolition, it certainly succeeds…
to a point. Prior to this viewing this critic was ignorant of the (in)famous
John Brown, a white abolitionist preacher who thought violence was needed in
the fight against slavery. He was hanged in 1859 for raiding a federal armoury
in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, holding many men hostage to inspire a slave insurrection.
series opens with his execution, narrated in voiceover by the fictionalised
former slave Henry ‘Little Onion’ Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson). We reverse
in time to Henry’s first bloody encounter with Brown, in a barber's. Brown
preaches the word of God like a crazed believer, the sharp lines of his face
stretching with his enunciated words.
Seeing the sack that Henry wears, Brown
mistakes him for a girl and takes him to join a band of multi-ethnic,
abolitionist outlaws. Henry continues to live as Henrietta for most of the
series, consistently leaving and returning for the cause.
John Brown (Ethan Hawke) and Henry/Henrietta/Little Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson). Photo: Sky
The Good Lord Bird being based on the 2013 novel by James McBride, the
influence of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained seeps into its dusty
pores. The funny and stupendous violence enjoys increasing the number of bodies wasted
by rapid gunshots. The dialogue has a musical, literary rhythm, especially in
Henry’s narration (‘just when he seemed to wrap up one thought, another come
tumbling out and crashed up against the first’). The absurd humour also has its
brilliant place, despite the dark and hopeless surroundings.
series often strikes the bells of progression, chiefly because of its black perspective. John Brown's white privilege is criticised by Henry, who endures anti-slavery meetings
in which no black people speak (‘it seemed like everybody got to make a speech
about the N****, except the N****’).
Brown isn't omniscient or omni-benevolent, which is often the shape that the White Saviour character takes. Henry’s perspective is integral to avoiding this trap, and his coming-of-age thread is often more interesting than that of John Brown.
But The Good Lord Bird is desperate to resume its spoofy, gun-slinging take on historic events. It accelerates to a near-incomprehensible speed, rarely believing that patience is the right course. It shoots thick and fast, much like John Brown’s
tactics. Little character moments fly in and out again, but they’re quickly
swept back into the furious action. You can't see anyone too clearly; it's like being on a bolting horse and watching riders rush by in blurs of blood and
Nevertheless, the characters make vivid impressions in their passing. None more so than John
Brown, played by Hawke with destructively absorbing altruism. As he shouts in
beautifully rusty diatribes, delivering antagonistic sermons on the pulpit or the
edge of battle, his face pulls you in with its severity and sincerity.
Good Lord Bird might’ve
served better as a movie. The violence soon grows stale, the humour is just about
maintained, and you find yourself struggling through the forestry of dialogue. But as an
entertaining, educational history lesson – growing more and more pertinent to
our times – this weird, revisionist Western shouldn’t be overlooked.
The Good Lord Bird airs on Wednesday 18 November at 9pm on Sky Atlantic
|What||The Good Lord Bird, Sky Atlantic review|
18 Nov 20 – 18 Nov 21, ON SKY ATLANTIC
|Website||Click here for more information|