For the first few minutes of “The Good Lord Bird,” Showtime’s high-spirited adaptation of James McBride’s celebrated novel, I did not enjoy watching Ethan Hawke play John Brown. As the abolitionist whose 1859 raid of the Harpers Ferry, W.Va., armory helped trigger the Civil War, he gives an exaggerated, theatrical performance with a lot of ranting and spitting — Al Pacino in a Mamet play, only on TV so you’re right up in his face. With all the scripture and fury in Brown’s righteous screeds, Hawke is irritating and I wanted him to shut his actorly mouth and retreat into a cast cameo. You know, “Featuring a special appearance by Ethan Hawke.”
And then I got with the program, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. Hawke’s Brown is an irritant of the first order, to enact God’s will for the equality and freedom of all people on Earth. He is shouting until he’s hoarse so those he meets on the road will listen, shouting to build an army of abolitionists, shouting because he’s enraged at the hatred he sees, and shouting, in the comic vision of this fictionalized tale, because he’s a brilliant, violent, absurd, exhausted kook.
By the second episode of seven, I missed his dirty, hairy face and his overlong dinner prayers — which his adult sons decry — whenever he wasn’t in the action; the absence of his oversize performance for a few sustained sections of the series gave my heart room to grow fonder. And as “The Good Lord Bird” continues on its boisterous way, Hawke manages to deepen his portrayal into so much more than humor, as he becomes an endearing and humane mentor and friend to the character who is the story’s parallel hero and the narrator, the 9-year-old Henry Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson). Brown pulls Henry out of slavery in Kansas — he assumes, at times wrongly, that every slave he encounters wants to be freed immediately — and into his abolitionist struggle.
The comedy in “The Good Lord Bird” is such that, in his raving — and in his view of people as humans regardless of sex and race — Brown fails to note that Henry is a boy. He believes he is a girl, he nicknames her “Onion,” and Henry, suddenly having to wear dresses, doesn’t correct him. In his journeys with and without Brown, Onion will need to code-switch feverishly to survive, at one point trying to convince an aggressive traveler that the older, darker Black man beside her in their carriage is her slave. But when Onion is perceived as a girl, he doesn’t need to alter much; he is a sensitive boy with a soft voice (and, for slaves, the rare ability to read and write), and the bad-tempered men he encounters enjoy talking to him kindly, as they might a girl. And he enjoys it, at least at first, before he develops his first crush on a young woman, one of Brown’s daughters (played by Hawke’s daughter, Maya Hawke). If Hawke’s Brown is the scream in the series, Johnson’s Onion holds down the whisper end of the spectrum.
“The Good Lord Bird” builds toward the incendiary events at Harpers Ferry, a mixture of tactical errors, blind faith, and tragedy. And the show’s rowdy atmosphere is flexible enough to slide into intensely moving and disturbing moments (with some emotional gospel songs on the soundtrack), thanks to directors such as Albert Hughes and Kevin Hooks and creator-writers Hawke and Mark Richard, all of whom stay true to McBride’s vision. As Brown, Hawke is also able to slide between tones. For much of the series, he and his bluster are the source of the comedy, as his belief that there’s no justification for owning human beings leads him into the heart of American hypocrisy. He is simultaneously delusional and clear-headed. But he will also break your heart with that same undying commitment to the fight.
“The Good Lord Bird” isn’t like many of the wrong-headed white savior stories I’ve seen; Hawke’s complex performance helps avoid some of those tropes (which are mentioned in Onion’s narration right at the top of the series), and the emphasis on Onion’s story as an orphan finding his power helps even more. There are also memorable, if brief, appearances by the “General,” Harriet Tubman (Zainab Jah), and Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs, playing up the satire), who admire Brown and remain wary of his rashness and white-splaining at the same time.
Even as he faces the gallows, having lost children to the cause, having been exploited and lied to by frauds he thought were friends, Brown remains persuasively positive about this country. It’s really something to see; there is a resounding note in there for all of us at this dire moment in American history.
THE GOOD LORD BIRD
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Joshua Caleb Johnson, Daveed Diggs, Ellar Coltrane, Beau Knapp, Jack Alcott, Zainab Jah, Hubert Point-Du Jour, Steve Zahn, Wyatt Russell, Orlando Jones, Rafael Casal, Natasha Marc
On: Showtime. Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.