'Good Lord Bird' Episode 4: Here's how 2020's race protests pop up in Ethan Hawke's John Brown speech
His speech has direct parallels to the race-related violence that has spilled on to the streets after words, petitions and court cases brought no justice, no relief
We never get the heroes we deserve, just the ones we need. In telling history with both satirical flourishes and pathos, 'Good Lord Bird' has done the impossible. Imbube historical figures steeped in legend and myth with the immediacy of today.
In last week's episode, we got "Mister Fred" aka the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass, whose name is a hallowed one since he created the discourse around what an enslaved Black man was capable of once he was free. In the show, he is depicted as an escaped slave who utilized his oratory skills as an anti-abolitionist speaker to carve a comfortable boujie life with a Black wife and a White mistress. Settled in the North, far from the horrors of the South, he has no desire to be too radical. He admires Brown but also calls him a "lunatic". His dilemma about whether or not to support Brown's Harpers Ferry raid is made manifest in his relationships. His Black wife urges him to support Brown, while his White mistress tells him to save his own skin. Douglass ends up drinking copiously unable to decide how far he should risk his own life and reputation supporting a crazy White man's plan, which while admirable is very risky.
Poor Onion, forced to pretend to be a girl because of Brown's mistake, has even less of a choice. Dragged along by Brown on his "pilgrimage" to free every man, woman and child, Onion very pointedly tells Brown that before he met Brown, he had never seen anyone murdered, slept in the cold or had to survive on scraps at the start of episode 4. Brown himself (like Frederick Douglass) has been depicted as a bit of a hypocrite himself on the show. Though he describes himself as a 'man of God', he also beheads poor farmers barely able to eke a living and too poor to afford slaves. Brown thinks he has freed Onion, but Onion in his dress feels like a kidnapped victim.
But in episode 4, Brown redeems himself somewhat. First, he apologizes to Onion and instead of forcing his ways, sets 'her' free to go her own way. Second, chastened and subdued after his experiences in Pennsylvania and losing Onion, he opens up about his violent ways. About why he has picked up a gun and why he is waging his bloody campaign. "In America, they call me a murderer," he begins.
He then details how he was a non-violent abolitionist, just like his father. And this is what he taught his sons to be, as well. But their friendships with Black people enraged the pro slavers who not only "raped and murdered slaves" but also hated anyone who befriended them.
So they burnt the farms and homes of his sons in Kansas and this "woke" him up. In his speech, Brown calls for free Black men and White men to commit to the violence necessary to end slavery. Brown's spittle flies as he rails against the greed and cowardice of the 'White Man' who has grown 'fat' on the wealth produced by an unequal system that he has forgotten the "values on which this country was founded". He says, "How do I talk to such a man? How do I affect change in his heart? I must speak to him in a language that he understands. The language of violence."
His speech has direct parallels to the race-related violence that has spilled on to the streets after words, petitions and court cases brought no justice, no relief. Being actually 'woke' or being radical harms the bottom lines of 'business as usual'. It is why we even have a phrase like 'get woke, go broke'. It pays to be hypocritical or be faux woke.
It is why a White woman can use the politically-correct term like "African American" while calling the police on a Black man. The immediacy of his speech is also reflected in the way the Black Lives Matters movement has had to become increasingly radicalized in 2020 as it becomes evident that violence will again be necessary to end racism and burn out its roots in institutions and systems.
'The Good Lord Bird' airs on Sundays on Showtime at 9 pm ET/PT.