In The Good Lord Bird, an enslaved teenager named Henry Shackleford (played by 15-year-old Joshua Caleb Johnson) gets swept up in the fire and fury of the Unites States’ anti-slavery abolitionist movement in the mid to late 1850s. Through his somewhat bemused and disbelieving eyes, we see some of the leading activists of the day like Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs), Harriet Tubman (Zainab Jah) and John Brown (Ethan Hawke) as they campaign, fight and struggle against an entire society that’s profiting off slave labour directly, or reluctant to rock the boat.

This 7-episode period drama miniseries, based on African-American author James McBride' 2013 novel The Good Lord Bird, blends fictional characters with real-life historical figures and events. The bird of the title is the elusive (now possibly extinct) Ivory Billed Woodpecker, whose feathers John Brown sometimes hands out as his lucky charm. The nickname – common at the time – came from many people’s reaction to seeing the bird for the first time: “Good Lord!” The same thing could be said for people spotting John Brown for the first time in this series, thanks to Ethan’s passionately off-the-wall performance.

A boy in a dress

It’s John Brown who sweeps up Henry, mistakes him for a girl and nicknames him Onion, frees him from slavery and gives him a place in his ragtag army, along with a nice dress to wear. While John considers “Onion” to be a good luck charm, and happily shares with him his determination to free all slaves, Henry is somewhat less taken with this bearded weirdo, observing that John is “nuttier than a squirrel turd”. And it’s Henry’s running commentary on John Brown’s behaviour, and the attitudes and actions of everyone they meet along the way, that makes The Good Lord Bird such a funny and refreshing take on history.

“This is not the typical story of the white saviour that comes to save African-American people. This is the African-American perspective on the white saviour that comes to save us. So, it's a lot different. And that's why it's so funny. It's a story of caricature," explains James McBride.

John Brown dropping Onion into a situation where he’ll have to keep pretending to be a girl is part of the humour of the tale, along with being a reminder that our heroes are flawed and human. “[I wanted to] communicate the overwhelming moral power and courage and drive of John Brown to release blacks from slavery whether they wanted to be released or not. Just the force of the man to just push into this tavern, get into a gunfight, grab this kid, run off not paying attention to whether the kid is a boy or a girl, because his charge is to free all African-Americans. And because he's wearing these blinders, if you will, he just doesn't see things that he should see," James reveals.

John Brown

It’s no wonder John Brown seems unhinged, though. As a staunch Christian and a true believer, he’s appalled by the hypocrisy and injustice of slavery openly existing in a supposedly Christian society, in direct contradiction to scripture. “A lot of the most radical do-gooders – people who dedicate their lives to change – are very close to what society calls insane because you have to be willing to step outside of the box of the rules that society makes,” says Ethan Hawke. “People would call him insane, and he would say, ‘If I’m insane, what does it say about a society that would support the buying and selling of children? I refuse to accept your sanity.’ It’s like he was preaching the Sermon on the Mount with a .44-caliber pistol in his hand.”

Watch The Good Lord Bird S1 from Monday, 19 October on M-Net (DStv 101) at 22:30

How to watch The Good Lord Bird online

Sign up for DStv Now. It’s no extra cost for DStv subscribers! With DStv Now, the same channels you watch on your decoder at home are available for you to stream online, or using the DStv Now app on your phone.

Get it on Google Play

Feel every moment with DStv