John Brown’s abolitionists fight for the cause in Showtime’s irreverent ‘The Good Lord Bird’

'The Good Lord Bird' – Abolitionists fight and die in Showtime series

Ethan Hawke (left) and Joshua Caleb Johnson star in “The Good Lord Bird,” premiering Sunday on Showtime.

The story of 19th century abolitionist John Brown is brought to idiosyncratic life in an irreverent limited series upcoming on Showtime.

“The Good Lord Bird,” a seven-episode drama series premiering Sunday, Oct. 4, the story of Brown (Ethan Hawke, “Boyhood,” “Before Sunset”) tells its tale from the perspective of Henry “Onion” Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson, “Animal Kingdom,” “black-ish”), a fictional enslaved boy who becomes a member of Brown’s band of motley abolitionist soldiers during the 1850s Bleeding Kansas, when the state was the site of skirmishes between pro- and anti-slavery factions.

Brown and his men eventually found themselves fighting in the infamous 1859 raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, W. Va., which failed to initiate the slave revolt he intended but did ignite the Civil War. Brown was hanged shortly thereafter.

The story is based on the novel by African American author James McBride (who with Hawke is an executive producer here) and endeavors to blend humor with tragedy as it touches upon a sensitive subject, slavery.

Joshua Caleb Johnson (left) and Ethan Hawke star in “The Good Lord Bird,” premiering Sunday on Showtime.

“This is not the typical story of the white savior that comes to save African American people,” McBride explains. “This is the … African American perspective on the white savior that comes to save us, and so it’s a lot different, and that’s why it’s so funny. It’s a story of caricature. … I personally am kind of tired of the ‘Go on. Go down …’ I don’t want to see stories like that, and I don’t want to read books like that.

“I want to read a book that informs me,” he continues, “and, also, I want to see something that informs me, that’s funny, that gives me and gives the viewers a chance to say ‘Oh, I made a mistake,’ ‘Oh, this is funny,’ and ‘Yes, it’s true as well,’ and ‘It’s all right.’ “

Catalyzing a lot of the action is Brown, who Hawke portrays as a manic man of deep religious and moral convictions who is more than willing to die for the abolitionist cause. He’s also seemingly incapable of holding a conversation at anything less than full volume, a trait the actor borrowed from someone close to him.

“My grandfather … loved to declare,” Hawke explains. “He was of a generation, he spoke in complete paragraphs, and he used to practice speaking. … He would practice speaking from the top of a tree because he was on the debate team and whenever he talked at you, he shouted at you. ‘We are Methodist, you know.’ And you were, like, ‘OK, OK.’ And so I kind of, when I thought about the period and I thought about his voice, I started just finding my grandfather and imagining him.

“There’s a thing I read about John Brown,” he continues. “When he heard something he didn’t like, it was like … he was eating his tongue in his mouth. And then, when he spoke, he would kind of try to knock you out. And I just went with that.”

George Dickie

George Dickie

George Dickie has been a features writer for Gracenote/Tribune Media Services since 1989, when “Hee-Haw” was still on the air and George “Goober” Lindsay was his first interview. His early interviews ranged from Jim Henson and Dick Van Dyke to Phil Collins and the Dixie Chicks.

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