The Good Lord Bird

Firebrand abolitionist John Brown is portrayed with gusto by Ethan Hawke in a winning mini-series

There are different ways to portray gangs of good people doing bad things to bad people. In this year's Nazi-chasing, Al Pacino-led Hunters, the makers chose to depict their avenging angels as superheroes, a set of comic book-style cut-outs whose ultraviolent methods had you cheering them on one minute and wincing at their blood-letting the next.

The Good Lord Bird, based on James McBride's 2013 novel, focuses on a hardy bunch of anti-slavery desperados helmed by a manic preacher named John Brown (Ethan Hawke). This very real militant abolitionist barely needs to be exaggerated by having made-up powers bestowed upon him, with a firebrand vigilantism driving Brown on to shoot, burn and behead his way through the ranks of those holding back the cause of mid-19th century emancipation.

'All of this is true. Most of it happened' flashes up on-screen before each episode, with the history books certainly showing that the climactic battle at Harpers Ferry in West Virginia resulted in the end of the road for Brown, but marked the starting point of America's Civil War. The story is told through the eyes and with a voiceover from a teenage slave, Henry, who Brown has liberated while mistaking him for a girl called Henrietta. Choosing to dress his young ally in frocks and rename him Onion, they forge a bond which is torn apart only by the hangman's noose.

Despite the sombre subject matter, The Good Lord Bird's humour is beautifully pitched, especially one running joke about people trying to cut Brown off during his overly-long mealtime prayers; though the episode which introduces social reformer Frederick Douglass (Hamilton's Daveed Diggs) dips occasionally into quickfire farce (Carry On Abolishing?). As Brown, Ethan Hawke (who also co-writes and co-produces this seven-part series) is on blistering form while newcomer Joshua Caleb Johnson also highly impresses as Onion. The Good Lord Bird shows that dark material needn't be couched permanently in gloom. Despite the sad ending, there's a sense of hope in the eyes of those actors who stare out at us through the camera lens, reminding us that whether it's 1859 or 2020, humanity can still be a force for good in an often bleak world.

New episodes, Sky Atlantic, Wednesdays, 9pm; all episodes available on NOW TV.

Join our newsletter