Variety Streaming Room
The already dramatic life of abolitionist John Brown is further dramatized in “The Good Lord Bird,” a Showtime miniseries based on the book by James McBride. In the show (from Blumhouse TV)…
The already dramatic life of abolitionist John Brown is further dramatized in “The Good Lord Bird,” a Showtime miniseries based on the book by James McBride.
In the show (from Blumhouse TV), the story of Brown — a white abolitionist who led the raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia — is modified to include a fictional character as his sidekick. A young Black boy named Henry, or “Onion,” helps Brown on his eventually failed mission to free slaves, though Brown believes Henry to be a young girl. As many Southern states attempted to paint Brown as a madman, the martyr’s story is told through a satirical lens with elements of dark humor added throughout.
During a Variety Streaming Room conversation on “The Good Lord Bird,” Variety senior editor Michael Schneider discussed the show with a panel that included author and executive producer James McBride, star and executive producer Ethan Hawke, actor Joshua Caleb-Johnson, costume designer Amy Andrews, production designer John Blackie and episode 103 director Darnell Martin. Watch below.
“He was a hero to Black Americans, you know, in the early part of the 19th century,” McBride said. “American history is very complicated, and so I wanted to do it in a way that showed what a great but flawed man he was without boring people to death.”
On the decision to tell Brown’s story through comedy, Martin noted that the story itself has ironic elements already embedded within. Right and wrong feel inherently reversed in a time period when a man can be labeled as insane for believing Black and white people are equal. “This kind of normalization of atrocity is absurd, right, and that’s the dark comedy of it,” she said.
The panel also discussed telling the story of a relevant white man and his impact on the movement to end slavery without placing him in the position of a “white savior.” In one scene where Brown, played by Hawke, attempts to sway Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs) to his cause of arming slaves to start an uprising. Douglass quickly reminds Brown that he has no experience as a slave and should not presume to know how Black people — often abused and beaten for small things — will respond to being offered weapons and asked to risk their lives.
Serious moments like the encounter with Douglass pepper in throughout the show, countering the often comedic scenes to tell Brown’s story in an intriguing, yet educational manner. But shedding light on stories relevant to American history is important, Hawke said.
“Being able to talk seriously and be funny at the same time is it’s a balancing act,” he said. “And when you talk about John Brown or you talk about slavery, human bondage, it’s a difficult subject to look in the eyes.”
Here is the full video: