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Series Review | The Good Lord Bird: American history as a Western thriller

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Ethan Hawke goes all guns blazing as hero and co-creator, in ‘The Good Lord Bird’ drama series based on the true story of an abolitionist who set out to liberate 19th century America from slavery, in the process triggering off Civil War in that country.

Based on James McBride’s 2013 novel of the same name, The Good Lord Bird takes a grim, violent slice of history, retains the gory edge but underplays the dark vibes to turn an early anti-slavery campaign of the US into a rollicking Western thriller.

Watch The Good Lord Bird (2020) Official Trailer

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Blaxploitation imagined as irreverent Western drama is not new, Quentin Tarantino did it fabulously in his 2012 ode to violence Django Unchained. Hawke and company spread out a similar tongue-in-cheek style of narration over seven episodes, deftly weaving fiction with facts. Only, it is more political in its context. The idea is summed up by this smart announcement: “All of this is true. Most of it happened.”

Hawke shares scripting credits with five co-writers to set up drama based on real life, and casts himself as the phenomenal abolitionist John Brown who believed violence was the only way to end slavery in the United States. The story unfolds through the eyes of the fictional character Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson), a young slave who ends up a part of Brown’s army of abolitionists.

The series looks at Brown’s bid to organise armed revolt, leading up to the 1859 raid on the US Armory at Harpers Ferry that is widely regarded as the incident that sparked off the American Civil War.

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American history or its authenticity may not be of top consideration for average viewers in India. To focus on cinematic quality, Hawke and team have crafted an all-out entertainer.

Mixing tones of the disturbing with the witty, and the graphic with the sublime, the narrative does more than deliver a manifesto on racism and the war against it. The socio-politics driving Americanism of the time is well defined through religion, gender and class divides, without getting too overbearing about these societal aspects.

As a mainstream piece of work, The Good Lord Bird works as a package that lets Ethan Hawke flaunt one of his best performances ever. He lives the role, bringing alive its nuances over the episodes — by turns a fiery crusader, a hapless father, and the idealist who will chase his dream to any crazy extent.

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The Good Lord Bird is as wild and wicked as history on screen has gotten lately. Which makes for a fun watch, actually.

The Good Lord Bird (series streaming on Voot); Cast: Ethan Hawke, Joshua Caleb Johnson, Hubert Point-Du Jour, Beau Knapp, Rafael Casal, Wyatt Russell, Daveed Diggs, Ellar Coltrane, Jack Alcott; Created by: Ethan Hawke and Mark Richard

–ians, Vinayak Chakravorty

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