This The Good Lord Bird review contains spoilers.
The Good Lord Bird Episode 3
It’s right there in the title. This week’s episode is all about Mister Fred—including how you must remember to call him Mr. Douglass at first meetings. His rather puffy reaction to “Fred” likely took some viewers off guard, but imagine if Onion had called him what he was taught by Old John Brown: Frederick Douglass, the King of the Negroes.
Indeed, it is with that lofty title that Daveed Diggs’ swaggering and delightfully subversive interpretation of Fred is introduced. When we meet him, the energy Diggs projects is decidedly more virile than the typical Ken Burns pop culture image. In his first scene, Douglass is delivering one of his most famous speeches: “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” Yet as presented in The Good Lord Bird, this is less the revelatory re-contextualization of American pride through the prism of American hypocrisy than it is a headliner playing a greatest hit.
Soon we learn all that pomp and pomposity is but the tip of an iceberg where Douglass is concerned. On this show he’s presented as many things: a dandy, a man of vanity, and also one of the greatest minds of his era… at least when he isn’t focused on his apparently very open marriage. One can almost sense the glee building among the writers and director when they frame Douglass’ home life as a ménage à trois between himself, wife Anna Murray (Tamberla Perry) and German immigrant Ottilie Assing (Lex King). And if you missed the heavy implication, it’s soon explicit when they’re both soon making out with Douglass and competing for his nocturnal visit on the same night.
Obviously this depiction of Douglass is meant to throw viewers off as readily as Ethan Hawke’s boisterous turn as Old John Brown. And there is even something winking about the casting of Diggs, who’s most famous for playing Thomas Jefferson as a preening peacock in Hamilton, which earned him a Tony. There he played an affable hypocrite whose dark side is truly repulsive (and somewhat glossed over), given he was a humanist and an Enlightenment thinker who made profound progress for the rights of white men while keeping, and abusing, Black slaves all his life. Now Diggs plays a former slave whose hypocrisies are also not quite so wholesome as the grade school history book presents.
And that is, again, one of the most satisfying things about The Good Lord Bird. Rather than coast on the sanitized versions of men who did great things, it revels in their contradictions (even as Douglass’ contradictions are not nearly so tragic as those of Brown’s or, for that matter, Jefferson’s). Frederick Douglass was a former slave who escaped bondage of his own accord at the age of 39. A true self-made American, it was his political savvy and lucid mind that converted many others to the cause of abolition and equal rights before, during, and after the Civil War, including softening some of President Abraham Lincoln’s harder thoughts on Black Americans in the war’s early years.
Yet Douglass was also the most photographed American of the 19th century. He preferred photographs to paintings because he rightly did not trust any white American artist to get his countenance correct, and he knew photos would humanize Blackness to white audiences around the country. But, again, he stood more than any other American in his generation and several after for the laborious process of having his picture taken.
And while it’s merely left in the realm of speculation, many have theorized he did have an affair with German feminist and freethinker Ottilie Assing. We’ll never know for sure, but The Good Lord Bird embracing the possibility, and moral ambiguity, is more than just humorous; it taps into an elemental truth about humanity.
People are messy, history is a record of flawed actors with potentially complicated and sometimes unflattering motives, and progress is never made cleanly or in a straight line. In the age of simplified pop culture that reduces most social battles to good guys in capes versus bad guys in armor plating, actually embracing the messiness of our society is not so much about demythologizing history as it is a reclamation of human nature. Plus, Diggs’ admittedly-too-youthful energy as Douglass is joyous to watch.
How the series gets there is also interesting enough too. The episode begins with the apparent end to the Bleeding Kansas portion of its story. On the run with bounties on his and his sons’ heads, Old John Brown deduces that it’s time to go to the “King of the Negroes” to get his next assignment from God—and perhaps some money to incite a reckoning.
For in one of the show’s best moments, Brown crafts a new Declaration of Independence, one tellingly based on Jefferson’s soaring and empowering rhetoric from 1776… but with the realities of centuries of slave trading taken into account. Brown doesn’t just want to end the institution; he wants to bleed the whole nation the way Kansas has bled.
“We are to light the fuse that will start a great war to end slavery,” Brown preaches. “It will be a war between the North and South, both are guilty, both must share in the sacrifice. Slavery must go down in a tide of blood and carnage.”
The prophesying might have felt on the nose if not for the fact we know Brown will soon die to begin this war—missing the actual cannon fire over Fort Sumter by about one year. This is the real thesis of Brown’s life. Although, I suspect it isn’t the thesis of the series. Hence Brown being a character of almost mythic bombast each week. It came again tonight when he threatened a train’s ticket taker for trying to make Onion go back to the end of the train. In a natural context this could play as ludicrous, if only because while Brown was able to get away with illegal activity in the frontier of Kansas, he’d face unfriendly prosecution anywhere closer east. But in a show that basks in larger-than-life mythmaking, it’s sublime here.
The point is not to just highlight the bigotry in the North Onion will still face; it is to remind us of the status of Brown, and why his brand of crazy is able to earn a reluctant spot at the dinner table of Frederick Douglass. Because if anything, tonight’s episode is about an hour of contrasts.
It’s a funny moment when Douglass urges Brown to visit his house after the old man tries to draw a pistol on fireworks. “Lunatic,” is what Douglass mutters to himself. But as we see them sitting across the dinner table from each other, we understand what draws them together—and pushes them apart.
As presented in The Good Lord Bird, theirs is the age old relationship between political activists and the moderate establishment. They’re both “radical” by the standards of 1856: two men campaigning for abolition, with one being Black. Yet it is the Black man who urges caution, particularly in public, even as he is vaguely aware that Brown is itching for revolution behind closed doors. A revolution soaked in blood.
You see shades of the modern political left, and of every era, in these two men. And on one hand, The Good Lord Bird wishes to side with John Brown. He is, after all, the protagonist. And we know his prophecy of a tide of blood and carnage will come to pass. Onion’s voiceover narration also provides skepticism about Douglass’ reticence. But then Onion is a character who is constantly astonished about this world. Last week it was with awe he admired Pikesville, even as he saw a man pissing on the street. This week Onion is more rightly impressed by Rochester, a community where Black children can play with a ball in the streets.
But he also doesn’t quite understand African Diaspora when Douglass broaches the subject, nor does he seem to give it much consideration later in the voiceover. I’m a bit skeptical as to whether Douglass would be so haughty toward a recently freed slave who didn’t know his name or the term, but Douglass is right to try to broaden Onion’s mind to the fact that their culture and heritage was stolen from them, and they must seek to claim their new one.
It’s also why Douglass is the first, and to date only, Black character who cannot be bulldozed by John Brown’s rhetoric and sense of privilege. Poor Onion is now wearing fancier dresses because Brown cannot be bothered to learn his actual gender, and poorer Bob is being led toward almost certain annihilation, as threatened by J.E.B. Stuart tonight. But Brown’s patronizing assumptions on Black slaves is ultimately what gets him killed in a half-assed revolution at Harper’s Ferry. And Douglass, as a “king,” doesn’t have to put up with Brown’s horseshit indefinitely.
“So now you know what the Negro slave needs,” Douglass cries. “Are you quite finished? As someone who has never lived in bondage, never been owned, never been savaged, never been used to death and then discarded, please do not presume to tell me what a slave will or will not do.”
For once Brown cannot ignore the actual Black perspective. Granted Douglass is also taking a politician’s careful calculations in this moment, reluctant to lobby for money from six benefactors too rich or powerful to be named at dinner—Brown wants their cash in order to pay for a bloody crusade of attrition throughout the South.
But Douglass’ prudence has just as much foresight as Brown’s Civil War fortunetelling. Brown foresees the war that was inevitably coming by this point; and Douglass sees it as well, but in his bones he’s right to likewise notice this madman is going to get himself killed, and is a fool to think slaves will follow him so easily into the grave.
The uneasy tension between political allies with different solutions (and delusions) is at the heart of the episode, which gives it more teeth than the humor of Douglass clearly flirting with Onion, oblivious that it’s a boy on his loveseat while his wife and not-wife are waiting in cold beds.
Onion also revealed certain insights this evening. Up until now, Onion has been fairly passive in his own story. He took the initiative last week to save Bob’s life when the shooting started, but otherwise has survived by making the choice to go along to get along. One might even argue he doubled down on that again when he decided to stay by John Brown’s side instead of taking the secret passage under Douglass’ house—and continuing up the Underground Railroad to actual freedom in Canada.
And yet, for the first time Onion could be called free, because he finally made a real choice: he could stay with nutty Brown or strike out on his own. He may have taken the easier and ultimately more dangerous path, but at least it was his decision instead of Brown’s. In that way Douglass provided the opportunity for real emancipation to Onion, and in so doing gave Onion something Brown is incapable of even understanding.
That cognitive dissonance in Brown, and his relationship with Douglass, as well as the relationship between all purists and pragmatists, made “Mister Fred” a liberating hour of television.