Sunday, October 4, 2020

REVIEW: 'The Good Lord Bird' - John Brown Aspires to Free All Slaves Though Onion Has a Different Perspective in 'Meet the Lord'

Showtime's The Good Lord Bird - Episode 1.01 "Meet the Lord"

Henry Shackleford, a young slave living in the Kansas territory in 1856, has a run-in with abolitionist John Brown, who mistakes Henry for a young girl and promptly "frees" him. Believing Henry to be his good luck charm, Brown welcomes him into his ragtag army and nicknames him "Onion." Donning a dress while dodging bullets, Onion awakens to the life or death stakes in the battle over human bondage and witnesses Brown's divinely inspired violent agenda: to free the land of slavery by any means necessary.

In 2019, the television industry aired 532 scripted shows across numerous outlets. The way people consume content now is different than it used to be. It happens according to one's own schedule. As such, it's less necessary to provide ample coverage of each episode in any given season from a show. Moreover, it is simply impossible to watch everything. As such, this site provides shorter episodic reviews in order to cover as many shows as possible. With all of that being said, here are my thoughts on the series premiere of Showtime's The Good Lord Bird.

"Meet the Lord" was written by Mark Richard & Ethan Hawke and directed by Albert Hughes

America will never truly be free until it addresses the sin of slavery. That's the mentality that John Brown leads from on his crusade. He aspires to free as many slaves in the Kansas territory as possible. He views it as a divine mission given to him by a higher power. This is something that God has called on him to do. He has recruited his many sons to the cause as well. And yet, he is a terrifying figure too. One who uses violence to get whatever he wants. He boasts of a just cause. That way he can justify every single action he is willing to take. However, Onion is never truly freed. He simply goes from one owner to another. It's a complicated subject. Brown doesn't care when the men of his army come and go. He believes the cause is worthy enough to always inspire others to join him. It's more personal when some of his sons are captured. But they too are horrified at the actions their father will go to in order to emerge victorious in this war. He resorts to violence to achieve his goals. It's gruesome and destructive. It means Onion suffers a loss right away. He never had the opportunity to pursue a free identity in this world. He was born into slavery. He was owned by the man who owned his father. One day, John Brown just happened to walk into their lives. It was incumbent on him to free them from this oppression. And yes, those ideals are right and just. No human being should be owned by another. In fighting for this cause, Brown gets Onion's father killed. Onion is swept away and forced to embrace a new idea. He doesn't believe he has the freedom to speak up and exert his own sense of individuality in this fight. John Brown views him as a girl. As such, he takes on that persona believing it will continue to keep him safe. He forms friendships with the soldiers in this army. But it always comes from the backdrop of this being a war and not a path to a better future. Brown is fighting to achieve change. He's not helping as many slaves as possible escape to freedom. Onion never leaves the Kansas territory. Even when running away, he quickly has to make his way back to Brown because that security seems more opportune than any over possibility in this region. His new friend Bob is simultaneously terrified to escape to the life that Brown is offering. When Brown eventually arrives to free him from his chains, it is a celebration but it's also a sentence to fight with this army. That's the only option presented to him. Bob needs to free his wife and children as well. They are deserving of freedom too. However, Brown sees him as a soldier who should be just as motivated to fight in this war. It's a righteous cause. One that should inspire many. However, Brown is so devoted to the cause and the need to listen to the wisdom coming from a divine power. Lives are put on the line because of how he is willing to act in the field. He will break promises if he doesn't trust the other person. Onion and Bob try to run away but are still pulled back into the action. That seems like the only destination for them to survive. It's only when Brown's sons stand up to him and voice their needs to return home that Onion and Bob feel the collective certainty of asking for that too. They are only as free as the white men around them allow them to be. This is an entertaining story. One captivated by an unhinged performance from Ethan Hawke as John Brown. One that still has many parallels to our struggles with race today. Onion resents Brown for making him take on this new identity as a girl. His life changes and he is given a new name. That connects him back to his ancestors who were sold off to slavery and given new names to serve their masters. He is perceived as a good luck charm for Brown in his crusade. And yet, one of Brown's sons still dies. People refuse to change the law of the land. They will exploit and abuse the benefits of slavery for as long as it is beneficial to them. Brown sees people who allow that to happen as complicit. That is absolutely an extremist view. As such, he hurts people who didn't necessarily do anything wrong. He prevents others from having any agency in their lives. But he still rides away into the woods in the end. He is an eccentric character who forces so much to happen. That is heroic. It's also destructive. That complexity lies at the heart of this story. Onion feels empowered by Brown in some ways. But it's not enough to suggest true trust and a desire to work together towards a collective goal. Brown may be alone in his specific fight. However, minds are still being changed in the hopes of activating the population and speaking out against the sins of the past. That is honorable work too despite how little progress is seemingly made in the minds of those who have to face brutal racism and attacks every single day.