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Reviewing Showtime’s ‘The Good Lord Bird’

Ethan Hawke as John Brown, with Joshua Caleb Johnson as Henry

This new series is not quite the grave and somber slice of American history one would expect. It tells the story of the anti-slavery crusader John Brown and how his raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia helped push America into the Civil War. This series is a riotous ride through a primitive America whose identity is still in the process of being formed, led by an extraordinary performance from Ethan Hawke as Brown.

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.

Edited from an article by Adam Sweeting, of Sky Atlantic.

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Posted by on November 30, 2020. Filed under REVIEWS. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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Bill Formby
Bill Formby
1 year ago

Glenn, I have to wonder if we of these newer generations could tolerate the real truths of history. What was it that Jack Nicholson said, “Truth, you can’t stand the truth.” There is probably a lot of truth in that statement.

1 year ago

I will be watching this because DUH, Ethan Hawke is in it and the reviews have been really good. I’m waiting for my guy to be caught up on The Boys before I watch it though.

Mark Willis
1 year ago

I expect historical accuracy took a back seat to the blazing six-guns of the infamous John Brown, so I will forgive them.

Glenn Geist
1 year ago

I grew up reading about the horrors of the Holocaust and even the centuries of slaughter by Crusaders. I’m no less horrified by the African slavery story of the European powers in their colonies. History is a bottomless pit of horror and grief. I will bet anyone alive today descends from some reprehensible ancestor.

Yet I’ve lost hope of my generation and subsequent generations ever having history related in anything but curated form designed to perpetuate hate. I used to see all or at least most of these historical holocausts as the crimes of Christendom, but I can’t any more. It’s happened in other places like Rwanda, Cambodia, China and others.

My constant problem when having history presented to me by entertainers rather than historians is the unavoidable distortion. For instance we can’t resist talking about “white people” any more than Roman Gospel editors from talking about “the Jews.” History is infinitely complex, but not on Showtime. There as in the Bible, it’s all about blame and simplifying blame and assigning it away when it belongs to all of us – our whole wretched species.

The African slave trade? It’s not about “white people” it’s about African governments, Arab governments and a handful of European, Christian nations. It’s not about Americans, it’s about Southern colonists not Vermont and Maine. That it continued for a generation after we became the independent American States is reprehensible even for those who didn’t practice slavery. It’s the sin of those who compromised so that the revolution could succeed.

But Honestly – Canadians were not part of this. The “white folks” from Sweden, Finland, Estonia, etc. are white people with their own set of sins but not slave driving.

And honestly again can we pretend Christianity is a real thing and forgive ancient sinners while hating the sin? The only thing we can do anything about is now. John Brown’s body lies moldering in its grave. Let’s march on.

Caroline Taylor
1 year ago

I enjoyed this show very much. Ethan Hawk and the rest of the cast did an amazing job.