The Good Lord Bird perfectly captures the great tragicomedy of America
Toward the end of his career, as he grew increasingly despairing and cynical, America's greatest humorist soured on jokes. "The secret source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow," Mark Twain wrote in his 1897 travelogue, Following the Equator. "There is no humor in heaven."
It is with this caveat that I describe The Good Lord Bird, a seven-part miniseries that premieres Sunday on Showtime, as a comedy. Yes, it includes Ethan Hawke, as the abolitionist John Brown, asking a rabbit earnestly, "Do you have fire in your heart for justice?" Yes, its main character wears a dress for pretty much the entire series after having his name, Henry, misheard as Henrietta, and never successfully managing to correct the mistake. But for telling a tale as sad as the story of America and its original sin, The Good Lord Bird takes a page from Twain: it copes with laughter.
The Good Lord Bird was originally intended to premiere in February before being pushed back to early August, but Showtime — seemingly jittery about how the show would play in the midst of the upheaval over systematic racism and the murder of George Floyd — then pushed the release back again to October with the intention of adding "more context." The network apparently still lacks full confidence in the show, though, as it premieres quietly this weekend (now only further overshadowed by the news). "Perhaps, as the tumultuous events of 2020 played out, there was ... some nervousness about presenting such a story in a series developed by two white men from a Black writer's novel," The New York Times speculates; the series was created by Hawke with the writer Mark Richard, and is based on James McBride's 2013 National Book Award-winning novel. Still, the Times points out it has a stacked team of Black writers and directors behind the camera, and talent like Hamilton's Daveed Diggs, as Frederick Douglass, in front of it (McBride also executive produced).
Perhaps there were fears, instead, of The Good Lord Bird coming across as too much of a white savior story, centering as it does on the zealous preacher John Brown, although this is grappled with internally in the script. The story, additionally, is told through the perspective and first-person narration of Henrietta née Henry, an enslaved boy who is adopted by Brown after his father gets killed (Henry is mainly referred to as "Little Onion" in the series, due to an unfortunate incident with Brown's alliaceous good luck talisman; he is played by the immensely talented newcomer Joshua Caleb Johnson). Or perhaps the network's apprehension was about the tone of the show more generally, being, as it is, a satirical retelling of the doomed raid on Harpers Ferry, the curtain-raiser for the Civil War.
It is that very contradiction — the absurd married with the tragic — that makes The Good Lord Bird brilliant, though. No character better embodies this dichotomy than Hawke's John Brown. As the story's Holy Fool (Herman Melville thought he was "weird"), the preacher vacillates between spittle-flecked rages demanding the emancipation of every enslaved person in the nation, and a quiet, childlike naiveté ("it doesn't bother me giving you my special thing," he tells Onion in the first episode, obviously bothered). At other moments, Hawke plays the part with an almost Jack Sparrow-like swagger, muttering to himself as if he's off in his own reality. But for all the comic relief — and there is plenty, The Big Lebowski's Jeff Bridges had even briefly been considered for the part — John Brown is at his core a complicated and tragic figure. The Good Lord Bird does not shy away from his unimaginable violence and bloodshed, nor his emotional burden. "Grief. That is my wealth. Grief," he tells Onion, after describing the deaths of nine of his children, though Hawke's tired, disheveled Brown carries the weight of that loss in every moment he's onscreen. And lest we forget our history, the series begins with the reminder that it is telling a story that will end with Brown's martyring, when he is hanged for treason.
There is an important distinction between humor and cartoonishness, and The Good Lord Bird navigates it well. The latter results from not having a deep enough understanding of one's characters and subject; the former, humor, is the opposite, a result of seeing, clear-eyed, that there is no other option for coping. In that regard, The Good Lord Bird does not hesitate to peer soberly into America's heart: a mass hanging in the second episode, set to Nina Simone's "I Shall Be Released," is especially upsetting. And though the passage of time has allowed for Brown's preachings of slavery as America's greatest sin to prove to be correct, there is a reminder, too, of how religion was twisted by pro-slavery forces to justify the practice. "If we whites are wrong," a different preacher prays at one point, "please forgive us."
Both the novel and the television adaptation of The Good Lord Bird have drawn comparisons to Twain's writing, in part for their episodic narratives and the whisked-along first-person narrator, but also the memorable parade of characters who come through Onion's life along the way. A better comparison, though, would be in the way that McBride, Hawke, and Twain all weaponize humor to speak to Americans about their flawed homeland and history, using it as the sugary coat on the bitter pill of truth-telling. "If you're trying to teach people, or yell at them, you rarely change their mind," Hawke explained to The New Yorker. "Humor can really effect change — it's the greatest illuminator."
If there is one single image that sums up The Good Lord Bird, it comes at the start of the first episode, when Hawke looks out through the camera at us with his icy blue eyes and whispers, "what a good country," just as the hood is pulled over his head for his execution. It's not exactly funny; it's odd, though, to watch a man who is about to be killed by his country still hold on to his hope for it. "John Brown is all of us," I had scribbled next to my transcription of the quote, a sort of wry joke to myself. In the tragicomedy of America, you have to take the laughs you can find.