The Good Lord Bird: Ethan Hawke, James McBride on bringing John Brown to Showtime in 2020
"The Good Lord Bird," the new Showtime series starring Ethan Hawke and based on the National Book Award-winning bestseller by James McBride, is a great American epic starring Hawke as storied abolitionist John Brown.
It is not a history lesson, nor is it a political treatise. By design, and true to McBride's written word, it is a deeply human look at Brown, the man enshrined in "The Battle Hymn of The Republic" and in text books for his 1859 raid on the U.S. Armory at Harper's Ferry — an attempt to spark a slave revolt two years before the start of the Civil War.
“People don’t want to look at politics — politics suck," said Hawke. "But if you care about the people then you see how politics is ruining their lives, then you get politicized and that’s the accomplishment of ‘The Good Lord Bird.’ That book is impossible to put down. It’s as funny and wild as ‘Huck Finn,’ and it’s charged with a political landscape that ‘Huck Finn’ only hinted at.”
“Many good books have been written about John Brown — and very few people read them," said McBride. "Americans seem to be allergic to real history, and so I wanted to create something that would draw in people, that was … as entertaining as anything that you see but would inform them as well, at least to start the conversation.
"Because in order to fix this cancer that is eating away at us, the solution is not just to pour iodine on it but to figure out what the root cause of it is, and part of the root cause is this mythological American history that some people have managed to absorb and call it patriotism. Patriotism is just the refuge of every last scoundrel in the world.”
The solution arrived at by "The Good Lord Bird" is to examine Brown through his relationship with an invented protagonist: Henry Shackleford, an enslaved boy brought by Brown into his ragtag army. Henry, played by Joshua Caleb Johnson, is nicknamed Onion by Brown, and misgendered as female by the idiosycractic firebrand.
Working from that fundamentally captivating premise, "The Good Lord Bird" is able to provide an intimate look at issues of race and gender, set during a devastatingly dark chapter in American history, and make it both incredibly moving and wickedly funny.
“'Saturday Night Live' does it every weekend," said McBride, who worked for the Delaware News Journal in the 1980s. "I don’t like books that say ‘Take your medicine and I'll show you what's (what).' I can’t read books like that. It’s not that they’re boring, they just don’t help me get out of bed in the morning. I want to be inspired, I want to laugh. … Look, I learned so much from Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce. I learn more from them than I learn from a history book when I hear them talk.”
"How do you have a slave insurrection discovered and people killed and then simultaneously have John Brown ride in, screaming about the Holy Redeemer and quoting the Bible while he’s firing pistols and get the way that the novel makes you laugh?" Hawke said. "It’s a particular genius that McBride has that he can do both.
"And everybody in the production, it was always this balancing act of, ‘If it’s too funny, then you won’t feel any emotion attached to it, and if we don’t keep the wit then we’re not being respectful of the source material and also people won’t be able to watch it, it’s too painful. We have to do what McBride did.’ ”
Hawke, who grew up in West Windsor, and McBride of Lambertville serve as executive producers alongside Hawke's longtime cohort Jason Blum on "The Good Lord Bird." A Blumhouse Television production, the seven-episode limited event series airs 9 p.m. Sundays on Showtime. It premiered on Oct. 4.
The series continues the creative partnership between Hawke and Blum dating back to their time together with the 1990s New York City theater company Malaparte, and has continued through films including hit shockers like "Sinister" (2012) and "The Purge" (2013), and last year's tender drama "Adopt a Highway."
“Jason has been really charged. I think the horror genre really brought him into direct contact with the way class in this country works and how people are separated," Hawke said. "(His) movies like ‘Get Out’ and ‘The Purge’ and ‘BlacKkKlansman’ were really exciting to Jason in what he learned about America and different audiences and where they’re coming from. And when I read this book, he was the first person I took it to, to say, ‘Listen, this is right up your alley, man. It’s entertaining as hell and it has something to say.’
"The genius of ‘Get Out’ is obviously its political subcurrents, whatever you’d call them, but it’s also genuinely terrifying. You’re on the edge of your seat. And if you’re making a genre movie and it doesn’t tick the boxes that genre movies are supposed to, it doesn’t matter what it has to say because no one will watch it."
"I hope that one day Jason Blum will be seen as the television pioneer that he is because he’s always ahead of the curve," said McBride. "He sees around the corner, if he doesn’t he goes to the corner and looks around the corner. ... Jason Blum put everything into this. He shot every bullet to make this go and I admire him for that. I admire his company and his outfit. They did a really good job.
"And Showtime should be commended for taking it on as well and putting as much muscle behind it as they did. It takes a lot of guts to take something like this and put it on the air in this environment.”
"The Good Lord Bird," a Blumhouse Television production, airs 9 p.m. Sundays on Showtime. For more information, visit www.sho.com/the-good-lord-bird.
Alex Biese has been writing about art, entertainment, culture and news on a local and national level for more than 15 years.