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This article was created in paid partnership with Showtime
In the latest installment of The Hollywood Reporter’s ‘Dreaming in Color,’ a series focused on amplifying talents of color, above and below the line, the stars and director behind Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird, Ethan Hawke, Daveed Diggs, Joshua Caleb Johnson, and Darnell Martin sat down to discuss the miniseries and its place within the current conversations surrounding racial justice.
The Good Lord Bird, created by Ethan Hawke and Mark Richard, and based on the novel of the same name by James McBride, follows the fictitious Henry Shackleford (Johnson), nicknamed Little Onion, a slave boy who is freed by John Brown (Hawke) and his band of abolitionists and conscripted into their fight against slavery, which leads to his crossing paths with Frederick Douglas (Diggs), and culminates with the 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry. The series, produced by Blumhouse Television, blends historical drama with Twainian black comedy. The Good Lord Bird presents a coming-of-age story rooted in the act of confronting America’s history.
Despite the historical nature of the show, John Brown and his efforts to fight against slavery are not well known, comparatively speaking, and the series marks the first cinematic depiction of Brown’s raid. “The fact that this is not a famous battle, the fact that we’ve got to watch like 10,000 movies about the Alamo land grab in Mexico, there’s so many stories that get shoved down our throats, and this one is essential to understanding our nation, who we are, who we have been, and what the truth is,” Hawke said, speaking about his passion for the project. “We tell stories to get people talking and to get people thinking,” he continued. “For me, it felt like the greatest honor of my life to get to stand in the shadows of these great people and this great story and shine a light on this part of our history. And to do so with the intelligence with which James McBride tells this story. In the life of an actor, that’s what you dream of.”
The “life of an actor” is just beginning for Joshua Caleb Johnson who is the heart and soul of The Good Lord Bird. “The character of Onion for me was very close to myself in a way. He’s very calculated, very witty, not to toot my own horn, but a very smart character in general,” Johnson said, with a grin. For the young actor, who is making his first major debut in The Good Lord Bird, he spent a lot of time putting in research for the character and his place in the time period. “I was very fortunate to have an amazing history teacher who taught me tons about John Brown. It was kind of coincidental because I was learning about John Brown as I was auditioning for the project. So, I had tons of background information…but some other things I did were, Ethan, and producers gave me a list of movies they wanted me to watch. I believe some of the movies on that list were, The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, Alpha, and Once Upon a Time in America, which is one of my top three favorite movies now. When I got to Virgina I went on numerous tours of the state, I visited slave holding cells, salve trails, a lot of museums. It gave me a lot of background history which fulfilled my spirit and allowed me to transfer all of that into my portrayal of Onion. In my short career so far, which I hope is much longer, it was the most fun I’ve had researching a project.”
For Daveed Diggs, who is no stranger to genre and tonal-defying explorations of race in America through his work in Hamilton and Blindspotting, the chance to work with Ethan Hawke was hard to say no to. The fact that he would be playing American icon Frederick Douglas came second to sharing in the energy he felt from that early meeting with Hawke. “It felt special, and it felt really, really difficult. It felt like a big swing and that there were a million ways it could go wrong which is like exactly the kind of thing I’m always looking for.” Diggs’ depiction of Frederick Douglas, through Onion’s eyes, may come as a surprise for those expecting the same stoic depiction of the man they were taught about in school. “There’s something ludicrous about that kind of outsized wealth, particularly if you come from actually being enslaved…He’s participating in a society that Onion has never gotten to participate in before. To get to use that perspective to play the character is a really unique opportunity,” Diggs said, likening Douglas’ persona to that of an important truth-teller mixed with a car salesman.
Director Darnell Martin, who introduced Douglas in the third episode of the series, was a presence throughout the series, lending her expertise and insight to The Good Lord Bird as an overall series. Hawke was quick and eager to champion her creative role. An impassioned Martin said, “I so, so, so loved this project. The shows I didn’t even direct, I watched of all of it.” She was quick to point out that much of her love for the series stemmed from current events in America and the necessity for John Brown to be recognized as the great American hero he was. “Until John Brown becomes the white messiah, Black Lives will never matter in America. That’s what white people need to emulate: John Brown…Take down statues all over America. Take down Thomas Jefferson. Put [John Brown] up.” Martin reminded us that voter suppression, policing, incarceration, are all aspects that are inherent to the fight for Black lives in America, the same fight John Brown was fighting. “The thing that terrifies white people more than anything is the John Browns, the Nat Turners, the terror of ‘oh my God, the Black people are going to take over, and fight us, and kill us, and do what we did to them.’ No. No. We just want fucking equality and citizenship. It’s the same exact fight.”
Hawke echoed Martin’s sentiments, noting that the statues of slave owners and Confederate generals should be torn down and replaced with statues of John Brown and all the men who fought for freedom at Harper’s Ferry. “I’m going to try to get to work on that…We gotta petition, let’s get up a statue of all those guys. They should be celebrated. It’s a great example of Black people and white people working together. We need to see we can love each other. We can love each other. Citizenship is not that much to ask.” For Hawke, John Brown’s fight is a lesson that for Black Lives to truly matter, white people have to go beyond allyship. “It is the difference between the warm smile of allyship and the blood, sweat, and tears of being a co-conspirator.”
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