'The Good Lord Bird' Episode 3 Review: Irreverent take on Frederick Douglass reminds John Brown of his place
The episode sees Brown and Onion visit the eponymous Mister Fred who is none other than the social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman Frederick Douglass
Spoilers for ‘the Good Lord Bird’ Episode 3, ‘Mister Fred’
‘The Good Lord Bird’, while being a tale of slavery, the abolitionist movement, and civil rights, is also a coming-of-age story. After all, it is the story of Henry Shackleford or Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson), a Black boy mistaken for a girl and taken on a wild journey with a fanatical abolitionist and zealot called John Brown (Ethan Hawke). And it is through Onion’s eyes that we see the rights and wrongs of the world, and the rights and wrongs of Brown as well.
The episode sees Brown and Onion visit the eponymous Mister Fred who is none other than the social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman Frederick Douglass. Given the extremely irreverent nature of ‘The Good Lord Bird’, even Douglass isn’t spared (to a degree). It only makes sense then that he is played by Daveed Diggs.
His version of Douglass is that of a serious man with astounding oratory skills but also that of a man with enormous sex appeal that refuses to remain hidden. So much so, that even Onion feels a degree of attraction towards him. As do a host of White women listening to him speak. As does his wife Anna (Tamberla Perry), and as does Ottilie Assing (Lex King), a journalist recently immigrated from Germany, who first visited Douglass in 1856 seeking permission to translate ‘My Bondage and My Freedom’ to German. Ottilie, in the show (as confirmed by biographical assumptions), is shown as Douglass’ lover.
The episode boils down to a philosophical debate between the methods and ideas of Douglass and Brown. Brown approaches him with a request for funds to help him militarize against slavers. Douglass, a statesman, does not like the idea of violence and is wary of Brown’s growing track record for kills, especially decapitations of slavers.
One of the finer moments in the episode is the dinner table argument. While Brown’s idea of an armed revolt is loved by Anna and others, it is questioned both by Ottilie and Douglass and both make excellent points. Ottilie questions his zealotry and says that she suspects men who claim they hear the voice of God for every so often, god’s will distinctly resemble their own. Douglass on the other hand angrily reminds Brown that as a White man, he could never assume what slaves need and what slaves want and what slaves go through.
This again is the show’s writers (Jeff Augustin and Erika Johnson in this episode) reminding us that despite his admirable intentions, Brown suffered from a savior complex that needed checks every now and then.
The episode is a masterclass in understanding the arguments for and against an ecstatic fetish for the violent upheaval of social order. And it makes an excellent (yet despairing) note through the clash of these philosophies that it would take more than five generations for Black and White folk to exist in harmony -- something that is worth examining in the context of the nationwide Black Lives Matter struggles going on since May. The episode also sees Onion trying to understand and trying to digest these opposing views, trying to figure out if he wished to stand with Brown in his fight.
'The Good Lord Bird' airs on Sundays on Showtime at 9 pm ET/PT.