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James McBride, whose National Book Award-winning novel The Good Lord Bird was made into Showtime’s limited series, commends co-creator/star Ethan Hawke for guiding the difficult project to fruition. “This is a guy who could do anything he wants,” says McBride, adding metaphorically, “and he picked up the whole house and he walked it from New York to L.A.” The story focuses on the quixotic campaign by Bible-thumping abolitionist John Brown (played by Hawke) to spark a slave revolt just before the Civil War. It’s a picaresque yarn filled with colorful language and real-life figures like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, told with a combination of absurdist humor and heart-breaking pathos (think Mark Twain meets Joseph Heller). McBride talked about his approach to the subject and his impressions of the adaptation.
This is a rollicking chronicle based on real people and actual events. How much of it is fancy and how much is fact?
I’d say 80 percent is based on fact. Onion [a young male slave who passes as a girl] is a created character that allows the viewer and the reader to view John Brown and the beginning of the Civil War with fresh and somewhat innocent eyes. But most of those events happened. I added a comedic flavor to it because it’s easy to laugh through the pain rather than tell somebody, “Here, take your medicine.” You want to create something that’s enjoyable and celebrates the goodness in people.
This might be considered a variation of the white savior myth, with a hero who’s part lunatic, part uncompromising warrior. Was the notion of perpetuating that myth, even though this is based on history, ever a concern?
Not at all. Part of the problem in our society is that we assign terminology to people. And then that person falls into something that’s neat, that can fit into a neat tweet or even a news story. The problems of race in this country are far more complicated than the white savior myth. In terms of storytelling, [John Brown] was just a great man. Those who understand that humanity and the search for good that drives us create the best kinds of stories. If John Brown is the white savior that people don’t like, put my name right next to his, and I’ll take it.
What was it like seeing your characters brought to life by the likes of Ethan Hawke and Joshua Caleb Johnson (as Onion)?
It was the biggest creative thrill I’ve had in many years. In part because Ethan and [co-writer and co-creator] Mark Richard were insistent on keeping the story onscreen as close to the book as possible. And that’s unusual. And it worked. It made for some difficult moments with Showtime, but they stuck to their guns and they should be commended for doing so.
It sounds like the tone and language of the series accurately reflected the spirit of your book.
I think it was hard to do in places. They were so faithful to it that at times I just kept away because I said, “I’m going to muck it up.” Mark Richard and Ethan are high-level writers. The smart thing to do, if someone’s good, is get out of the way. I felt that it was more difficult for the actors to guard the magic, if you will, of the language. And they seemed to love it.
Did Mr. Hawke or Mr. Richard consult with you at any time as they were writing?
Mark and Ethan did. And Mark and Ethan talked all the time. But most of the discourse involved had to do with things like the use of the N-word, and thematic content that might be too much for television audiences. And how to convince Showtime that this would work, and why. And we spent a lot of time aligning ourselves in terms of what our personal politics would allow. Once I realized they were blood brothers, I had no concerns what was happening, both in the writers room and on the set. We decided that if we just kept it funny, that it would be OK.
Barry Jenkins’ Underground Railroad just started streaming on Amazon, there was the Harriet Tubman biopic that came out in 2019, and a movie last year called Antebellum that resurrected the horror of slavery in a contemporary context. Is there something coincidental about these projects coming out so close together or is there something in the air?
I’m not sure, because the industry is always two or three years behind where the public is. I suspect that it’s really because when you open a history book in America about slavery, you’re seeing a miniseries on every single page. So if you’re good enough, and you know how to make the story go without feeling like you’re beating up on white people, you probably have a pretty good writer, director and story on your hands. There was no great spell on the industry that said, “OK, let’s do slavery stories.” It’s just that it’s a good story when a good storyteller is driving the car.
There’s an interesting quote in your book when the character Chase is telling these tall tales about killing John Brown, and Onion, the narrator, says, “When folks wanna believe something, truth ain’t got no place in that compartment.” When I read that, I couldn’t help but think about the Republicans’ stolen election gambit and how they continue to foment that lie.
You reach a certain point when you know your story is not working for someone. [But] you just keep telling the story. Nothing is going to stop people from telling themselves the same lie over and over again because their sense of identity is tied to it. You have to let everyone have their sense of illusion, even though you may not agree with it. Because ultimately you have to be a fellow citizen to that person.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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