The Good Lord Bird – Sky Atlantic


It’s quite strange seeing Ethan Hawke, who, as a teenager in Dead Poets Society, was a celeb crush for some of my schoolfriends over 30 years ago, playing a crazed (but probably rather accurate) version of John Brown!   There are loads of antebellum books/films/TV series featuring elegantly-dressed men and hooped-skirted ladies sweeping down the staircases of plantation houses, or black-suited men and black-bombazine-clad ladies attending abolitionist meetings in Boston or Philadelphia, but this is the first one I’ve seen which has actually been set in Bleeding Kansas.  And Bleeding Kansas was where the action was, in the 1850s.  Then came the raid on Harpers Ferry.

I’ve been to Harpers Ferry.  It rained.

It’s all seen through the eyes of a former slave boy called Henry, who’s dressed up as a girl because Brown misheard his name as Henrietta, and is nicknamed Onion because he mistakenly ate an onion which Brown thought was a good luck charm.  And there’s also a prostitute called Pie.  Er, right.  James Caleb Johnson, the young lad playing Onion, steals the show even from Ethan Hawke’s amazing performance as John Brown.

This certainly isn’t reverential.  Frederick Douglass is shown as having a blatant extra-marital affair – which, by all accounts, he did (and probably more than one), but which no-one ever mentions because he’s seen as such a hero.  Brown himself is shown as being rather crazy, with one of his sons exasperatedly telling him to cut short his over-long prayers and preaching because the Good Lord has probably got sick of listening to them and has other things to do.

The whole thing is rather bonkers.  And it’s got a very catchy theme tune which is completely inappropriate to the seriousness of the subject matter.  But it’s fascinating.  Bleeding Kansas, which in many ways was the dress rehearsal for the Civil War, does tend to be very overlooked.  And John Brown’s become such a legendary figure – we all know the song! – that people forget that he wasn’t some sort of saint.  If he were around today, he’d probably be described as an extremist.  He was responsible for a number of murders.  But his point was that those Abolitionist meetings in Boston and Philadelphia and wherever else weren’t achieving anything: slavery had been abolished in many other countries but there was no sign of that happening in the United States.

And thus you get into all those debates about what it is and isn’t acceptable to do for what you believe is right.  It’s an intriguing story.  I wasn’t sure that I was going to enjoy this, just because it is all slightly bonkers, but I really am doing.

2 thoughts on “The Good Lord Bird – Sky Atlantic

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