- CRITTER TALK and OTHER GOOD STUFF
Though the story is based on James McBride’s 2013 novel it is rooted in factual events. The series looks nothing like a ponderous history lesson and all you have to do is sit back and let the meandering narrative, akin to a roller coaster ride, carry you where it will.
We watch the action through the eyes of Henry Shackleford, played by Joshua Caleb Johnson, who sees his father Gus shot by the monstrous Dutch Henry, (played by David Morse) during the “Bleeding Kansas” border war of the 1850s. He’s then whisked away by Brown and his scruffy gang of “rustlers, bushwhackers and an Indian”, as Henry tells it, and finds himself pitched into a string of violent and bizarre adventures which shed flashes of light on a fractured America blighted by slavery and heading inexorably for the traumatic Civil War of the early 1860s.
Any notion of the semi-mythic Brown being a visionary leader is instantly dissipated by Hawke’s portrayal. Here, he’s a roaring, Bible-spouting wild man, more like the town drunk blasted on moonshine whisky than some inspirational moral force. He likes to gather his men’ ’round the campfire’ and deliver interminable sermons that can last hours, as his son Owen (Beau Knapp) irascibly points out. Yet for all his hallucinatory immersion in the Scriptures and fanatical zeal to put an end to slavery, he has no qualms about slaughtering his opponents in cold blood.
The overall effect, in its picaresque perambulations, is sometimes reminiscent of movies like Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller or Arthur Penn’s Missouri Breaks, exploiting the legend and exploring quirks of character rather than getting bogged down in too many facts. Not that there isn’t a plentiful supply of brutal realities. By a circuitous route, Henry finds himself dressed as a girl and renamed Henrietta, working in a brothel in Pikesville, Missouri, and desperately evading the attentions of the male clientele.
To his unmitigated horror, his efforts to find his friend and fellow-slave Bob end up causing the hanging of another slave, Sibonia (Crystal Lee Brown, pictured above), in a ghastly cautionary tale about no good deed going unpunished. This is an upside-down world where an impromptu kangaroo court set up in the local saloon can leave anybody dangling at the end of a rope, and the callous brutality of the white folks finds a desperate echo among the slaves as they struggle to survive.
An inventive and sometimes soaring soundtrack (overseen by Jamison Hollister) skillfully mixes gospel music and spirituals with raw electric blues and an inspired reinvention of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” to create a sound-picture for the ages. It’s a strange and disturbing tale that leaves you wanting more.