Hawke admitted to me that he and Richard received notes from Showtime and Blumhouse, the production company, asking that they make sure the Black characters didn’t die too violently. “I think they don’t want to perpetuate that kind of horrible imagery,” he told me between takes. “And that’s probably a good idea, because nobody wants to see that [expletive]. And on the other side, there has to be a threat of where the South was at, in terms of their willingness to be violent.” Here he described to me a short list of barbaric acts committed against Black people, acts I will spare readers from. “If you shortchange that,” he said, “you kind of shortchange how brave these guys were.”
The problem with most mainstream cinema is that while it does not shy away from barbarism, it is ill-equipped to grasp what that barbarism means. Its real charge is to portray beauty. The lighting, the attention to detail, the music, the photography — the people who work on these things are aesthetes who take pride in their work. When you show the killing of a Black woman on film, you are on some unavoidable level showing it as a beautiful thing. The second time I watched the series, it occurred to me that Sibonia’s death wasn’t even the final scene in an episode; it was simply an act break, a Black woman’s onscreen murder serving as a plot device on Episode 2 of a seven-episode series.
Thus we live in split realities. One can argue that white audiences need to be shown the realities of violence. But the same was true of Vietnam movies: The idea was that if the horror of the war was shown at home, we would wake to it. What happened instead was that the horror of war was converted into a kind of fiction, a series of visual and cinematic tropes.
It is exhausting to watch Black bodies be killed, over and over again, so that others can finally understand what is horrible about that. It is yet another way in which our bodies are tools for white actualization, and not tools for our own. Black people die because our deaths are not considered real, because our lives are not considered real. What does a show about a white man, made largely by white people, have to say about that? The lives of Black people will always be a fantasy for white creators. The same applies to white policymakers and lawmakers and people who sit at home opining about law enforcement and protest strategies. Our nation’s history has ensured that it is so. What, then, is the cost of that fantasizing?
It must be said that “The Good Lord Bird” works as a series. The source material is excellent, and the people who created it know what they’re doing. It is at times funny, empathetic, affecting, well written and beautifully shot. Hawke’s performance, in particular, is a treasure. Joshua Caleb Johnson’s portrayal of Onion shows a heartwarming transformation from boy to young man. Strong performances come too from Rafael Casal, as a raconteur and gunfighter who joins Brown’s army; from the excellent Hubert Point-Du Jour, as a particularly shrewd traveling companion; from Orlando Jones, who surprises with a grizzled turn as the mysterious Rail Man; and from Zainab Jah, who embodies clarity and strength as “the General,” a.k.a. Harriet Tubman.
The story is rife with humor and compassion, plenty of gunfights and a few welcome elements of a heist flick, as Brown plans the Harpers Ferry raid that would help spark a civil war. The musical score focuses almost entirely on midcentury American gospel, using Mahalia Jackson’s upbeat “Come On Children, Let’s Sing” during the opening credits, and featuring songs by the Redemption Harmonizers, Spirit of Memphis Quartet, even a particularly powerful use of an Elvis Presley gospel recording, “Where Could I Go But to the Lord.” All this is entertaining. The bigger question, of course — the very difficult question the show opened itself to when it took on this story — is what any of this means as an entry into America’s struggles with race.
It is not until the third episode, when Brown sits at Frederick Douglass’s dinner table, that the abolitionist is finally challenged on any of his assumptions. “You know what the Negro needs?” Douglass says, his voice raising in anger for the first time. “Please do not presume to tell me what a slave will or will not do.” Brown is silenced, uncharacteristically humbled. “I cannot speak for the slave,” he finally replies, quietly. “But, Frederick, I can speak for the depths and shallows of the slavers’ hearts.”