History unhinged: Ethan Hawke stars as John Brown in 'The Good Lord Bird'

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Kyla Brewer / TV Media
Joshua Caleb Jackson and Ethan Hawke star in "The Good Lord Bird"

Joshua Caleb Jackson and Ethan Hawke star in "The Good Lord Bird"

As protests and demonstrations across the U.S. and the world shine a light on systemic racism, a new miniseries brings TV viewers back in time to the era of slavery in the weeks before the eruption of the Civil War. Given its context and the content, the production is poised to spark further conversation on the state of race relations today.

Ethan Hawke ("Dead Poets Society," 1989) stars as famous abolitionist John Brown in "The Good Lord Bird," premiering Sunday, Oct. 4, on Showtime. The seven-part series is based on the novel of the same name by James McBride and, although inspired by actual events, features fictional characters as it explores Brown's story. Joshua Caleb Johnson ("Black-ish") stars alongside Hawke as fictional young slave Henry Shackleford, whom Brown "frees" and nicknames "Onion" after mistaking him for a girl and giving him a dress to wear. He soon joins the ranks of Brown's rag-tag army, and the story unfolds through his eyes.

McBride's novel was released in 2013 and quickly drew comparisons to Mark Twain's classic "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." It was touted for its "wonderfully bizarre images" by Héctor Tobar in the Los Angeles Times and went on to win the National Book Award for Fiction. Hawke not only stars in the television adaptation of the book but also adapted the story for the small screen alongside fellow executive producer Jason Blum ("Sharp Objects").

"The genius of the novel, for me, is how it deals with gender and race, and how we deal with the blind spots that we see," Hawke said at the winter Television Critics Association media tour.

Much like the book, the miniseries explores racial, religious and gender roles in America and, according to an official Showtime release, "weaves a humorous, dramatic and historical tapestry of Antebellum America." Showtime's "The Good Lord Bird" opens in Kansas in 1856, during a time known as "Bleeding Kansas," when anti-slavery groups clashed with pro-slavery groups. Even though that was 164 years ago, the content seems somewhat timely with the current focus on the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the outrage over systemic racism in America and around the world. Originally slated to premiere in August, the miniseries was pushed back to October — a move that Peter White from reported may have been designed to give producers time to carefully consider the content and design an appropriate PR campaign.

Even with the delay, there's plenty of buzz about the series, thanks in part to Hawke's involvement. The program marks the Academy Award nominee's first major TV gig in nearly a decade. It's clear from the trailer for the new series that Hawke's Brown is sufficiently unhinged. The real-life Brown was on a mission to abolish slavery at just about any cost, allegedly convinced that he was doing God's work and that violence was necessary to end the practice of slavery. Bringing such a character to life would be a challenge for any actor, but Hawke's part in the miniseries is just one in a long list of challenging roles the actor has tackled throughout his career. He first came to the attention of audiences as Todd Anderson in "Dead Poets Society" (1989) alongside Robin Williams ("Mrs. Doubtfire," 1993). Hawke's other notable film credits include "Reality Bites" (1994), Richard Linklater's "Before" trilogy and "Training Day" (2001) — the latter of which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. He also earned a nod in the same category for "Boyhood" (2014). The actor is no stranger to adapting stories for the screen, having earned two Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay for "Before Sunset" (2004) and "Before Midnight" (2013).

Daveed Diggs in "The Good Lord Bird"

Daveed Diggs in "The Good Lord Bird"

Hawke's co-star Johnson is one of the entertainment industry's up-and-comers. The teenager has landed roles in FX's "Snowfall," TNT's "Animal Kingdom" and ABC's "Black-ish." On the big screen, he starred in the indie movie "It's Just a Gun" (2017) and the feature "Ray Meets Helen" (2017).

In contrast to Johnson's portrayal of a fictional character, Broadway star Daveed Diggs ("Hamilton," 2020) plays a real-life historical figure: famed orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. In "The Good Lord Bird," Brown and Onion take refuge with Douglass and his wife for a spell. Of course, this isn't the first time Diggs has portrayed a historical figure. The actor, singer, rapper and songwriter originated the roles of Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette in the musical "Hamilton," winning both a Tony and a Grammy. On film, the multifaceted performer has appeared in "Wonder" (2017) and "Velvet Buzzsaw" (2019), while his TV credits include "Black-ish" and "Snowpiercer."

Other notable castings in "The Good Lord Bird" include Wyatt Russell ("Lodge 49") as first Lt. J.E.B. "Jeb" Stuart, David Morse ("The Green Mile," 1999) as Dutch Henry Sherman, Steve Zahn ("War for Planet of the Apes," 2017) as Chase, Orlando Jones ("Sleepy Hollow") as The Rail Man, and Ethan Hawke's daughter, Maya Hawke ("Stranger Things"), as Brown's daughter, Annie.

As the cast brings to life real and imagined players in the quest to abolish slavery, viewers will follow Onion and Brown as they travel to Canada, encounter Harriet Tubman (Zainab Jah, "Blindspot") and engage in a plot to take control of the nation's largest armory at Harper's Ferry — an event widely credited as one of the catalysts for the American Civil War.

Watch the drama unfold in "The Good Lord Bird," premiering Sunday, Oct. 4, on Showtime.