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‘The Good Lord Bird’ finale: ‘Last Words’

The Showtime series focused on the individuality of its Black characters

The run of The Good Lord Bird is punctuated with repeated use of a specific image.

Enslaved Black people, whose plight fuels John Brown’s Christian crusade for abolition, appear in the center of the frame. They stare down the camera lens, and the depth of field is such that only the person is in focus. The shot lingers long enough for them to be rendered as more than mere symbols, more than an undifferentiated mass of suffering.

These portraits are an efficient, wordless device that serves two purposes. First, they focus attention on the plight and personhood of those in bondage throughout a miniseries about a man whose zeal and eccentricity could easily upstage them. The struggle for freedom was a community effort, not a singular one.

Second, they are a tribute to one of the philosophies of Frederick Douglass, one of the most photographed Americans of his time, and a key character in this rollicking adaptation of James McBride’s novel.

In The Good Lord Bird finale, written by Mark Richard and Ethan Hawke (pictured) and directed by Michael Nankin, the fight for the personhood of Black people and the developing manhood of Onion converge.

William Gray/Showtime

In his Lecture on Pictures, a speech delivered on Dec. 3, 1861, Douglass — the real one, not the character played by Daveed Diggs — asserted that the photograph could be a powerful tool in the fight for progress. “The humblest servant girl, whose income is but a few shillings per week, may now possess a more perfect likeness of herself than noble ladies and even royalty, with all its precious treasures, could purchase 50 years ago,” he remarked.

The promise of the photograph is deployed for the last time in The Good Lord Bird following Brown’s hanging, accompanied by the sounds of the Spirit of Memphis Quartet singing “Walking With Jesus.” Each subject is shown, unsmiling, daring the viewer to truly see them. The show closes with an image of Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson), who has finally shed the dress that made him Henrietta. Instead, we’re left with Henry Shackleford. A faint hint of a smile tugs at the corner of his lips. The montage animates an idea expressed in a passage from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me:

I have raised you to respect every human being as singular. And you must extend that same respect into the past. Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman whose mind is as active as your own, whose range of feelings as vast as your own, who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in the nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dress making, and knows inside herself that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone.

The Good Lord Bird is about Brown, yes, and Ethan Hawke renders him with growling conviction and principled, endearing tenderness. But it is also a story about the search and fight for Black personhood, for self-determination, for what it means to be a man.

When Onion’s father is killed in the first episode, leaving him orphaned, he is too old to imprint onto Brown but too young to survive if left to his own devices. Instead, he becomes an adopted child of Brown, a good luck charm for the Pottawatomie Rifles, a prop for Brown’s abolitionist speechmaking, a chronicler of Brown’s faults and virtues, and a vessel for the hopes and dreams of men and women who will not live to see freedom.

In the finale, written by Mark Richard and Ethan Hawke and directed by Michael Nankin, the fight for the personhood of Black people and the developing manhood of Onion converge. Brown and his army have taken the engine house of Harpers Ferry, but find themselves kettled by American troops surrounding the building. Death by hanging appears inevitable. The Black men who have joined forces with Brown realize that though they have been robbed of the opportunity to determine how to live their lives, they can at least decide how they will die: of their own volition, with heads upright, guns blazing and hopeful of forcing the violent reckoning over slavery that would follow their deaths.

But one person struggles to find peace with this fate — Onion. Still wearing a dress, an object of clothing that has repeatedly functioned as a life preserver, Onion poses a question to the grown Black men huddled with him in the engine house: “How can I die like a man if I haven’t lived like one yet?” The men, having re-created the fraternal atmosphere of a barbershop, playfully rib Onion and his efforts to conceal his “true nature.” They all knew he was a boy. They saw the truth of his existence when white people — even radical, abolitionist white people such as Brown and his children — did not. Each man donates a piece of clothing from his back so that Onion may have a chance to live like a man, even if they will soon be dead. It is a scene that enlivens an American generational ritual of Black sacrifice. Onion’s elders invest in a Black future they know they will not live to witness. If Onion exits the engine house as a man, he may be able to convince the armed forces surrounding it that he is a hostage, not a combatant. He may have a chance to be a person.

But what about Brown, this well-meaning man who could not fully see Onion for who he was? He is captured and held as a cautionary example to other white people, the only people allowed to witness his hanging. Seeking to prevent the creation of a martyr, the government bans Black people from coming within three miles of the gallows on the day Brown is executed.

Reflecting on his efforts from a prison cell, Brown tells Onion that the six to nine minutes it takes for a person to die from hanging will likely do more for the cause of abolition than he’s been able to accomplish in the rest of his life.

“I won’t live to see the change that’s coming, but I hope that you do,” Brown tells Onion, who has sneaked into the prison to see him one last time. “Hiving bees takes time.”

Brown delivers a final kernel of grace and wisdom when Onion questions why he held no ill will about Onion’s deception regarding his true gender. Perhaps he could not see that Onion was male, but he always saw Onion as a person. He didn’t need a photograph to tell him that.

“Whatever you are, Onion, be it in full,” Brown counsels. “You were made by your maker, and he loves you. And I love you, too. I don’t care what clothes you wear any more than I do the size of your shoes.”

The Good Lord Bird’s complex swirl of dark humor, deadly violence, bondage and sacrifice allows it to circumvent the mawkish traps of white saviorism. Instead, a collection of flawed, principled individuals come together to right wrongs as best they can, guided by the same holy book many a slaveholder used to subdue the people they called their property. Onion, having survived to tell what must be told, is our happy ending and the kernel of a hopeful beginning, left to roam on the back of a horse and fly on the wings of a flock of good lord birds.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.