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'The Good Lord Bird' review: John Brown's story as tragicomic farce

Ethan Hawke as John Brown and Joshua

 Ethan Hawke as John Brown and Joshua Caleb Johnson as Onion in Showtime's  "The Good Lord Bird." Credit: SHOWTIME/William Gray

LIMITED SERIES "The Good Lord Bird"

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on Showtime.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT When abolitionist John Brown (Ethan Hawke) and his sons come to Kansas territory in the late 1850s to support the "Free-Staters" — those battling to keep slavery out of the proposed state — Brown adopts a young boy, Henry Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson, "Snowfall"), who is suddenly orphaned when his father is killed during a violent confrontation. Unsure of Henry's gender, Brown decides he's a girl, and dresses him appropriately. Henry, who just wants to survive, isn't about to argue the point. As they make their way around the country in search of money and support for the cause, Brown and "Little Onion" (his nickname for Henry) meet other famous personages, like Harriet Tubman (British actress Zainab Jah, in a brief but important cameo) and Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs). This limited series is based on James McBride's 2013 novel, a National Book Award winner.

MY SAY With vermilion crown and three-foot wingspan, the ivory-billed woodpecker was once a wonder of the southern woods. When it took to flight, observers would at first yawp ("good lord!") then take a shot. A wonder no more, it's now extinct.

That's McBride's metaphor for John Brown, and to an extent, Hawke's inspiration. His performance is all thunder and tarnation, bluster and rage. As he spreads his arms and throws back his head — the spittle flying, the Old Testament beard shaking — you almost expect him to take flight too. Instead, he's an earthbound Charlton Heston howling on the mountain.

Farce is inevitable, and farce is intended, to which you might ask: Too soon? Too soon to make fun of Brown who's still a-mouldering in the grave, or "Bleeding Kansas," or slavery and the enslaved? McBride's acclaimed novel made short work of those questions, and so does the TV adaptation. History doesn't necessarily repeat itself as farce here — history is farce.

"The Good Lord Bird" can be funny but its laugh lines are mostly muted. This isn't, in other words, "Django Unchained" (although it can be just as violent). Hawke and his "Good Lord Bird" clearly admire Brown but they also see him as a tragic figure who, when viewed from a slightly different angle, is a comic one — a Don Quixote and his windmill or Ahab and his whale. His fate was foretold but it also shook the foundations of this country and we feel the tremors to this day. There's only so much humor anyone can squeeze out of that premise.

The more interesting character — and equally important one — is Henry, or "Henrietta," as he's called when he doesn't answer to Onion. Neither free nor enslaved, male or female, child or adult, Henry occupies an ambiguous middle ground. He's an enigma to all except Brown who idolizes "her," but Henry sees his role with perfect clarity: "Lying come naturally to all Negroes during slave time," he explains in voice-over, because "much of colored life was an act."

There's a little or a lot of Huck Finn in Henry too. Huck — who also famously dressed as a girl at one point — gradually came to see what slavery and slaveholders were all about but Henry already knows all too well. Instead, from that ambiguous middle ground, he sees with perfect clarity what people are all about — their vanities, their evil side, even their good. When Tubman tells him that "slavery has made a fool out of a lot of folks — when you slave a person, you slave the one in front and the one behind," he knows exactly what she means.

Watching this tragicomic farce, so will you.

BOTTOM LINE As good as Hawke is here, Johnson just might be better. A winner.

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