Director Darnell Martin first made an impact in film with her indie breakthrough I Like it Like That back in 1994. She has since worked steadily on screens both big (Cadillac Records) and small (Law & Order SVU, Chicago Fire, just to name two). With The Good Lord Bird, Martin felt a true calling and connection to the material and, most specifically, to the man the project was about, the abolitionist John Brown.
In our conversation, we discuss the radical nature of Brown and of Ethan Hawke’s performance, the balancing of comedy and tragedy, and the deep emotional attachment Martin experienced while making The Good Lord Bird.
AwardsDaily: How did you come to The Good Lord Bird?
Darnell Martin: I can’t remember when I learned about Harper’s Ferry and John Brown because I feel like I’ve always known that story. My people were from Lowery, Virginia and they were enslaved in Fayetteville, Virginia which was known as Lowery, Virginia. There was a cave there that they said that John Brown actually hid in with the enslaved people on the Lowery Plantation. I always wondered if my ancestors were some of the enslaved people with John Brown. My son used to say the only historical white man that you respect is John Brown.
So when my agent said, ‘Oh there’s this television thing about John Brown they’re interested in you for,’ I didn’t even read the script, and I hadn’t read the book yet. I said, ‘Does it make him look good?’ They said yeah and I said I’m in. No one ever made him look human. He is always kind of a villain, somebody out of his mind, and he’s the greatest white American hero that we have. Until John Brown is white America’s messiah, black lives will never matter in America. If you want a hero, take down Thomas Jefferson and put his statue up.
AD: The way history has written him is as more or less a crazy person and the thing about the way Ethan plays him is that it doesn’t shy away from the fact that he is a little out there. When I spoke with Ethan, his response was that considering how insane the times were, you had to have somebody who could match it which I thought was fascinating.
DM: I would even go one step further and say there is nothing crazy about him at all. We have taken this word enslavement and made it kind of Disneyesque. If you have hundreds of thousands of serial killers, serial rapists, serial kidnappers and people who cut off people’s limbs and you have those people running around and then someone goes out and kills them, that would be normal. The Daughters of the Confederacy spent a lot of time and money and energy with their fucking lost cause sanitizing what enslavement looked like. Child rape, serial killing, maiming, torture, kidnapping…when we look at it like that, he didn’t do anything crazy. You have to understand, he was a very religious person. You can just look at very religious people and say they’re crazy.
I’m a Christian Scientist so I don’t go to doctors, I pray. I have a different sense of reality, and he had a different sense of what liberty was and what democracy was. In the end of the series when he says what a beautiful country, he’s saying what he believes it could be. His grandfather was at the signing of the Declaration of Independence and walked out when they wouldn’t take slavery out of it. In his family, his entire family, they saw what America could be and they fought for it. At some point he said fuck it, this is kidnapping, killing, pedophilia…we’ve got to stop talking about it, we’ve just got to end this shit right now. That’s the hard thing. And there’s nothing crazy about Ethan’s portrayal of him. He’s a religious guy. He has reason to think that. People shot holes through him and didn’t kill him. It was insane. Like God must have put me here because I’m still living and I’m leading the charge. That kind of zealousness… that’s the zealousness of the martyrs and Christians.
AD: Maybe radicalism is a more appropriate word, but radicalism isn’t a bad thing when it’s applied appropriately, right? When I heard Ethan was playing John Brown, I thought really? I had long admired Ethan’s work, but John Brown is a very big character and it requires a big performance to a certain degree. I had never seen Ethan give that kind of performance. Were you at all surprised by his work?
DM: I think that all great performances are based on love, even if you are a villain. John Brown is not a villain. It’s I love something so much that I am willing to give this. Ethan has this big giant heart. It’s not an acting thing, it’s a quality he has. You see it when working with him. He has incredible humility. He wants everyone to have their space to be an artist. He gets joy and excitement from watching. When Daveed did his performance and he was watching he was like “Oh my God I’ve gotta go home now because Daveed’s killing it.” He loved it. He said look how great he is, look how wonderful he is. He gets excited about other people’s artistry.
He’s so fucking generous. He’s one of the most generous artists I’ve ever met.His stepdad is a lot like my mother. His stepdad brought in homeless people and brought in anybody who needed help. We grew up on public assistance and we were bringing in homeless people and so forth. That was my mother. It was from their sense of Christianity. I think that he saw a lot of his stepfather in John Brown. I think what other people might see as crazy zealousness was nothing but love. He loved Onion, and he saw black children the same way he saw his own children, to the point of being proud of his son’s that he gave them the opportunity to die to be decent human beings to protect their own brothers and sisters. To give your child’s life to a cause is fucking huge. That’s why I love John Brown.
AD: Speaking of the generosity of the project in general, the way Ethan put it to me is that John Brown is the event but it is actually Onion’s story, which I thought was very true. We see John Brown through Onion’s eyes for the most part. Joshua is such a young and talented actor, but it was a lot to put on a young person’s shoulders to really carry the audience. You see the show through his eyes. What was it like working with Joshua?
DM: Josh is amazing. He’s wonderful. The one thing that Ethan did which was great was to surround him with actors to support him and give to him in the scenes as well, like Daveed. That was amazing. A lot of young actors, when they get scared they shut down. The most incredible thing about Josh is he would open up. He would not shut down. He would say “I don’t know this. I’m open to know. I want to know.” That is insane maturity. Whatever he had to get to, he got there very quickly. I think that the speed at which he progressed was astonishing.
AD: The episode you directed is ‘Mister Fred.’ I thought your episode was the trickiest in balancing humor against the backdrop of all this tragedy, especially in regards to the presentation of Frederick Douglass. What we have in our mind of Frederick Douglass is this very sort of rigid and stoic sort of person. This goes entirely the other way. I know that McBride’s book was that way as well. Did you have any concerns about presenting him in a way that was so different than how we typically think of him?
DM: Yes I did. I had a lot of concerns. There are actually are things that are true about Frederick Douglass that we just don’t know. We’ve only seen this kind of stodgy, staying in one lane depiction of Frederick Douglass. Like the fourth of July speech, when you are taught Frederick Douglass in school, that’s not the speech you hear. You hear about how he learned how to read and write, or he was enslaved and then he got away, and then he got Lincoln to let us fight in the war. You don’t hear the fourth of July speech! Right now that would be incendiary. He was the most photographed man at that time. All the women would go bananas when they saw him. He wore his hair like that for a reason. He was so stylish. He was the first rock star.
He was wearing shit nobody else was wearing. He knew he was fine. He knew when he spoke everybody was riveted. That’s why the women are fanning themselves – white and black. He had all kinds of women around him. He was funny, he was hysterically funny. He was flamboyant. He didn’t give a shit. He was like, ‘Lynch me motherfucker. Try it.’ That’s not the guy that we see in the books, and Daveed was so perfect for that because he has crazy swagger and that was fun to see. And Onion coming into his house and seeing a black man like that. That’s freedom. Yes, I have a white woman sitting here. Is somebody going to do something about that? Yes, I can drink. Yes, I can tell John Brown to chill. On top of which, he is the word. John Brown is the hand, but Frederick Douglass is the word. They each had their role to play to bring us towards the Civil War. The wonderful way that Frederick Douglass speaks of John Brown, to push the legend for the abolitionists – it’s an amazing relationship.
AD: When you talk about their relationship, the quote that Douglass had that plays toward the end of the show, basically he said that (I’m paraphrasing of course) ‘I was willing to live for the cause but John Brown was willing to die for it.’ That says a lot about their relationship and about the respect that Frederick Douglass had for this white man.
DM: And the respect that Brown had for Douglass. He was like, ‘This guy is the dude. This is the man. He is the everything.’ He’s the captain but who is the general? The whole show is what America could be. That last line is what America should be…a beautiful country. I feel so proud, so blessed, it was such a joy. Everyday I worked so hard on that show. I stood in mud up to my knees for hours being bitten by all kinds of things. It was joy, every single moment of it. I can’t say that about any other thing that I have done. Even my own stuff that brought absolute joy, this was joy in another way. Especially with what is going on now.
AD: I wasn’t shocked obviously that something that took place in the 19th century would have an impact on now. But there are parts of The Good Lord Bird, like the potential for interracial love between John Brown’s daughter and Onion and the acceptance that John Brown had for a young man who dressed as a woman. Obviously Onion didn’t want to be passing himself off as a woman but that’s not the point. The point is that he accepted him as he understood him to be. That’s very relevant to the world we live in now.
DM: Yes. And it was not even trying; it was all out of a sincere place of love. Love is fierce. What I loved about Ethan was that he would take a turtle and look at it and want to kiss it. John Brown loved nature. He loved life. That was one of the things that we talked about. When you go to the scaffold and give your life, it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t really care about living. But if you love life and love the taste of the river, the salt on a turtle’s shell…
AD: Daveed has a natural theatricality, whereas Ethan has typically underplayed throughout most of his career. What was it like working with Daveed? You were working with two very different styles of actors. Ethan is trying (very successfully) to come to a place where he hasn’t been before, but I think for Daveed it was probably a little more natural. Correct me if I’m wrong on that.
DM: You know what is interesting – where I think you really see it – is the scene where they’re talking over the map and the plan. Basically Onion comes in and gives them some lemonade and sees them talking about the plan. It’s kind of an expositional scene. I thought, ‘I’ve got Daveed and Ethan. We could do something fun here.’ The funny thing is Onion is just learning how to wear these heels and dresses and bustles and be a lady, and bring in this lemonade. I thought wouldn’t it be funny if we go like a Moliere kind of comedy. He comes in with this bustle that he’s learning how to walk in these heels, and I made him come in wearing one shoe on and one shoe off. I said I want you to come in with this lemonade and we’re going to do one take. It could be really dangerous, you could spill it all over everything and we’re fucked. I want you to play with the map. I want you to take the map and move it around as Onion’s trying to put the lemonade on the table and give it to you without spilling it and you’re making it really hard for him because you guys are doing this whole map dance. And they both were like, ‘Oh my God we love that!’ The whole theater of the absurd. Ethan is theatrical as well, so they really got to just eat that up and play with it. That was fun. When things are written, actors will practice it and that’s how they expect it to be, so sometimes when something new comes out in rehearsal, and you say why don’t you try this? Lots of times people are like oh my God, I can’t. Actors, writers, everybody goes bananas. But they said ok let’s just try it. Let’s just figure it out.
When you’re acting you are seeing the story go from your perspective. It’s nice to have somebody else go, ‘Ok I see you doing that, but you did one little move here were you going to do that?’ They were just very open physically. I asked Ethan, ‘What do you think it was that made John Brown personally understand the pain of enslavement?’ He said when he was a little boy, he had a friend who was beaten almost to death – it’s an incredible story. I though, could he mention that? (Screenwriter) Mark Richard rushes in and boom there it is in the dinner scene. There was no ego with anyone. Everybody was listening and being open and brilliant. Ethan, and Daveed, and Josh and all of the actors on the show were just so brilliant and open and wonderful.
AD: And I would say brave. The reason why I would say that is there is a way to make a story about John Brown that I think a lot of us could picture, but there is a really high degree of difficulty that was taken on from the source material and trying to translate it onto film. The use of humor and the large presences that are involved is really complex to pull off. I can only imagine, having seen how it turned out, that being a part of something like this that is so challenging but also so important has to feel amazing.
DM: One hundred percent. The thing I would say is when you talk about humor, humor is love. (The book’s author)James McBride comes from a place of love and generosity. He is a charitable man who is so giving of himself to his community and helping children learn music who don’t have a chance to learn music. He is such a lover of humanity. That is in the book and that is why the book becomes irresistible and the characters become so irresistible. John Brown did what he did because of love. Frederick Douglass did what he did because of love. He could have lived a quiet life. Josh’s character, Onion, when he comes back in the church, when he sees Harriet Tubman, and goes to Harper’s Ferry, he does what he does because of love. Not because of politics or activism. Love makes him an activist. Love makes him political. That’s what it’s about. It’s a love story. When love is the driving force, you cannot help but win. Even when you lose, you cannot help but win. That’s what makes John Brown a true myth.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.