If you’re missing “The Good Lord Bird” on Showtime, you’re missing one of the epic TV events of the fall.
Ethan Hawke and Mark Richard’s seven episode take on James McBride’s picaresque novel about the run-up to the Civil War, feels fresh and topical, furious, funny and crazed, a stunningly-detailed recreation of a divided America and the colorful, charismatic figures who brought “the slavery issue” to a head.
Hawke takes the lead role of mad prophet Abolitionist John Brown in a story narrated by another of those unsophisticated sages immersed in the passing parade of history, a little “Forrest Gump” and a lot more “Little Big Man.”
Our narrator is the young slave Brown frees, Henry — or Henrietta as Brown sees “her” — played by newcomer Joshua Caleb Johnson.
“America will never have peace until we have dealt with slavery,” the boy dressed as a girl hears “the Captain” or “The Old Man” say.
From the minute Brown gets Henry’s father killed in the Free Staters vs. Red Shirt slavers of “Bleeding Kansas,” the kid gets an up close eyeful of Brown’s commitment, fanaticism and violence, and a taste of his utter incompetence in military matters.
“The Lord puts forth his hand and touches AAaallll evil,” Hawke’s Brown thunders, “and KILLS it!”
By 1858, Brown has come to the conclusion that the time is right to “free the slaves” with blood. To make the slavers “eat lead, grape and powder.”
The boy Brown nicknames “Little Onion,” mistaking him a teen girl sees. As “lyin’ come natural to all Negroes in slave times,” Henrietta goes along with it.
Henrietta witnesses mayhem in Kansas, hiding at a brothel with a prosperous prostitute (Natasha Marc), meeting future Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart (Wyatt Russell), and travels with Brown to Rochester to hear and learn at the feet of Frederick Douglas (Daveed Diggs of “Hamilton”), marveling at the great orator’s idealism, intelligence (too smart and sane to “join” Brown in the field), and quasi-polygamous home living arrangements.
There’s Harriet Tubman (Zainab Jah) in Canada, the “General” of the Underground Railroad, endorsing Brown’s final mad gamble.
At every step of the way, the child narrator listens to what confidantes like Bob (Hubert Point-Du Jour) say about Brown and his tendency to “pray” rather than thoughtfully command, to “plan” based on an idealized vision of “The Negro slave” eager to join his planned war to end slavery.
“We ride East while the harlot of slavery sleeps,” he commands. “The Old Man’s nuttier’n a squirrel turd,” mutters Bob.
The violent, chaotic early episodes show the quarrelsome collaboration of Brown and his sons (Ellar Coltrane of “Boyhood” reunites with Hawke), debating theology and strategy with a fanatic who is sure The Lord is on his side and thus not likely to die before his work is done.
Incompetent “battles” are joined, mostly lost, but Brown never fails to look the part in that famous mural, “Tragic Prelude” — wild-eyed, single-minded, terrifying.
Henrietta learns to read, and grapples with the patronizing nature of the original “white savior” figure to black people, standing up for himself even if he’s still hiding behind a dress.
The cast includes Orlando Jones, David Morse, Keith David and Steve Zahn in chewy, single episode supporting roles, and directors from Kevin Hooks (“Passenger 57”) and Albert Hughes (“The Book of Eli”) to Haifaa Al-Mansour (“Mary Shelley”) give the episodes authentic action and drive, or closely-observed studies of the circuitous, cautious path slaves had to navigate just to survive a system bent on working them to death or killing them for straying.
Hawke and Diggs are the standouts in the cast, with the former hitting home runs every time he takes on a project these days and Diggs fast translating his stage stardom onto screen leading man charisma.
The performances, the production’s gritty authenticity and the high stakes struggle mixed with droll observations about the committed but flawed people engaged in it makes “The Good Lord Bird” the TV event of the fall, and one of the best limited series of the year.
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Joshua Caleb Johnson, Daveed Diggs, Hubert Point-Du Jour, Natasha Marc, Keith David, David Morse, Orlando Jones and Steve Zahn.
Credits: Created by Ethan Hawke and Mark Richard, based on the James McBride novel. A Showtime release.
Running time: Seven episodes, @45-55 minutes each