‘The Good Lord Bird’ is a TV miniseries set primarily in the 1850s that stars Joshua Caleb Johnson as Onion, an enslaved teenager. He eventually becomes a member of a motley crew of abolitionist soldiers led by John Brown, played by Ethan Hawke, and even participates in the raid in Harpers Ferry. The series dives deep to explore the racism and social injustices that people of color have been facing in our society for a long while. So, is this movie based on real events?
Is The Good Lord Bird Based on a True Story?
No, ‘The Good Lord Bird’ is not based on a true story. However, to say that it is completely fictional is also not appropriate. You will understand what I mean once I explain how the show came to be. Firstly, we must acknowledge that the James McBride novel of the same name is the inspiration for the mini-series. In his version, there is a fictional slave named Henry Shackleford or “Little Onion,” who works with John Brown for their slavery-ending ventures.
The book is also a favorite of the Oscar-nominated actor, who was inspired to take on this role despite feeling like it was quite the challenge. Ethan Hawke further explained that the tone of the series is something that has already been done by Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers in the past. After all, the plot is a combination of many eclectic and ridiculous narratives enveloped by poignancy. The miniseries is also a passion project for the star. But, it seems to be the case that although the very real events have inspired the story, the script uses fiction as per its convenience to further the plot.
An on-screen announcement in the show reads: “All of this is true. Most of it happened.” But Ethan Hawke, who also serves as the executive producer, said this about the premise— “I’m not playing John Brown the historical figure, I’m playing John Brown as Onion sees him and as James McBride spins a big yarn.” There is no denying that Ethan’s character is a man of significance in American history. After all, the very real aforementioned raid of 1859 is often seen as a precursor to the Civil War by many.
You see, John Brown was a white man who felt that violence was an unfortunate necessity to remove slavery from the United States. In fact, his group of abolitionists and he were active during a time in history known as Bleeding Kansas, when many conflicts occurred in the area over slavery. By early 1859, the man was still conducting raids to free slaves. He also met Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglas around this time, and they helped reinforce his ideology.
Hoping that a raid on the US military armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, would lead to a slave revolt, John Brown ensured that 22 men (including two of his sons) received military training before the event. On October 16, 1859, the abolitionists commenced an attack to seize weapons and pro-slavery leaders. However, one thing led to the other, and ultimately, they failed after President James Buchanan sent Marines under the future General Robert E. Lee’s command. John Brown was captured and tried for treason, a charge for which he was found guilty. He was 59 years old when he was executed.
Ethan Hawke stated that many would call John Brown insane, but he did not see it that way. The actor explained, “If you read his letters from prison before his was hung, he’s clearly not insane. He’s definitely sane. You might not like him or believe in his cause, but he was definitely sane. They were well-written letters, and they’re very persuasive.” He also felt that the Harpers Ferry raid was one of the most significant events in American history, yet no one made a feature on it as it forced people to have some hard-hitting conversations about race.
James McBride, also an executive producer for the show, continued, “John Brown gave his life and his two sons’ love to the cause of freedom of black people. And this man’s story was buried for a long time because no one could figure out how to tell it without losing money or losing their career or deep-six in some kind of way. We managed to do it, and Blumhouse and Showtime should be applauded because this was a risky proposition.” He further stated that race issues should not be drowned out by the cacophony that usually surrounds them; there is an ardent need to have a proper and civil conversation on the topic.
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