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Telling the truth in American history

The creators and stars of ‘The Good Lord Bird’ share their creative process.

The panel for "The Good Lord Bird" included Ethan Hawke, who produced and co-created the show as well as playing John Brown. Hawke was a guest at last year's Virginia Film Festival.
The panel for "The Good Lord Bird" included Ethan Hawke, who produced and co-created the show as well as playing John Brown. Hawke was a guest at last year's Virginia Film Festival.

The creators and stars of the Showtime series “The Good Lord Bird” came together for a panel at the 2020 Virginia Film Festival on Friday. After an introduction from Virginia Film Office Director Andrew Edmunds, University Media Studies Professor William Little kicked off the panel as the moderator. The panelists included Ethan Hawke, actor, producer and co-creator of the show, child actor Joshua Caleb Johnson, James McBride — author of “The Good Lord Bird” novel — costume designer Amy Andrews Harrell and Mark Richard, executive producer and co-creator.  

Based on the novel of the same name, “The Good Lord Bird” follows the story of abolitionist John Brown, played by Hawke, as he leads his crew to the fateful raid of the armory of Harper’s Ferry, Va. in 1859. The series is narrated by enslaved boy Onion, played by Johnson, who dons a dress after Brown mistakes him as a girl. The show follows the duo as they wander through the country in search of allies and freedom. Along the way they meet other historical figures like Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs) and Harriet Tubman (Zainab Jah). Filmed mostly in Virginia, the set captures much of the Antebellum ambience it is seeking to portray. Beyond selling the story of John Brown, the creators are invested in investigating a larger truth about the world through a new perspective.  

Much of the discussion focused on the idea of incorporating different elements of cinema into the narrative to adapt the story from book to screen. Comedy is one of the major influences in this series as it is juxtaposed against the hardships of the Antebellum Period. The laughter and joking in the series is meant to replicate reality, as people often still laugh during tough times. This is an intentional decision so the viewer can take a moment to see a bit of relief while watching such intense scenes. First and foremost, the creators sought to create a connection with the audience in the face of the disconnection of making a period piece.

“People relate to the humanity as opposed to the story,” McBride said. “It's the humanity that is the magnet, the story is simply surrounding metal.”  

Another standout moment of the panel discussion was during the section centered on genre-blending. At one moment,  Hawke discussed how “The Good Lord Bird” includes elements of western film, although with one major difference — “The Good Lord Bird” focuses its stories on topics often overlooked in westerns like race, gender and class. One might go as far as to say westerns are intentionally lying about the American condition. 

“It doesn’t deal with the native community, it doesn’t deal with slavery and it’s a lie, it’s a lie of omission,” Hawke said. “So to make a western — and I really think about John Brown, as a white male, is somebody who can actually speak to that Americana that still exists in the white male, that libertarian craving — and see it on the side of justice and see it on the side of equality rather than see it on the side of oppression.”

The creators have intentionally sought out diverse voices to capture certain truths in the story of John Brown and western cinema. John Brown might be the only true white savior in history, but the creators divested from this trope to center a new narrative about the complexities of race and gender. This decision makes the series feel authentic despite it incorporating certain modern elements. “The Good Lord Bird” offers laughter and truth-telling in opposition to the current state of the political climate in America.