“Until John Brown Becomes the Messiah of the White Man, Black Lives will Never Matter to White Americans”: Darnell Martin on The Good Lord Bird
“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”—John Brown on the morning of his death, December 2nd, 1859
The 1859 public execution of John Brown—the 19th century American abolitionist put to death for taking up arms in an attempt to rid the country of slavery—was attended by men, including Stonewall Jackson and John Wilkes Booth, who would go on to make a much larger dent in textbooks. Yet, as America currently faces a social uprising unsatisfied with political lip service, John Brown’s spirit marches through the consciousness of the country that had him executed.
Based on the 2013 novel by James McBride, Blumhouse Television’s The Good Lord Bird follows John Brown (played by series co-creator Ethan Hawke), a band of outsiders—many of whom are his kin—and a runaway slave known as Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson) as they liberate enslaved men and women, often at the expense of massive bloodshed spewed from their slain white masters. Something of a realist, Brown knew that no passive, peaceful act would ever put an end to the cruelty of America’s original sin, so he took up arms. Told over seven episodes, the series is currently airing on Showtime, its finale set for this Sunday evening.
Numerous historical figures pop up throughout the series, including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Douglass makes his entrance in episode three (appropriately titled “Mister Fred”) in an electric performance by Tony Award winner Daveed Diggs and directed by Darnell Martin. Martin, whose directorial credits include features (Cadillac Records, I Like It Like That) and a robust selection of television series (Law & Order: Criminal Intent, New Amsterdam, The Walking Dead, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist), brings to her episode an attentive eye toward performance and a knowledgeable background in African-American history.
A few days after her episode made its world premiere, I spoke with Martin about her personal familial history to John Brown, her adoration of Frederick Douglass and resistance toward “tone meetings,” and how the series currently speaks to America at large.
Filmmaker: I heard a story recently about Vincent D’Onofrio recommending you to Ethan Hawke about potentially directing an episode of The Good Lord Bird. Was that your way into this project?
Martin: 100%. Vincent and I had worked together quite a bit and he had heard that Ethan was looking to hire people of color to direct The Good Lord Bird. It turned out to be one of the best television experiences I’ve had and much of that has to do with (in addition to being a wonderful actor) Ethan being one of the writers and executive producers on the series. We were able to rehearse and play around a bit with the shape of the story. I’m never precious when it comes to screenplays. They are blueprints for the story, but the location you’re shooting in, where you place the camera and what each of the actors brings to it will ultimately create something different than what’s exclusively on the page.
Filmmaker: Did you choose to direct the third episode specifically?
Martin: I hadn’t, and originally I didn’t even know which episode was going to be mine. Much of that has to do with the availability of each of the filmmakers and the shooting dates that have been set in place. I had a specific window of availability, as did a few other directors on the series. I should back up to say that I was obsessed with John Brown before this project even came to me. Before I knew who was even involved, my agent called and said “They’re interested in you for this John Brown project” and I said, “I’m in.” “Well, you haven’t even read the script.” “I’m in. John Brown is the only white hero I know.”
My father’s family, who hailed from Lowry, Virginia, were enslaved on the Lowry Plantation when John Brown would have been hiding out in a cave [near Harpers Ferry]. Brown talked to the enslaved people of that plantation and I’ve always wondered if my ancestors had heard or spoken with him. While there are people who may die for a cause that’s not their own, it’s another thing entirely to have their children die alongside them, as John Brown did. That’s a whole other level of being in the thick of it.
Filmmaker: So you had a personal level of knowledge about this history.
Martin: Yeah, not just as a fan of John Brown but also as a fan of Frederick Douglass, who factors prominently into the episode I directed. Back when my son was little and had difficulty learning how to read, I taught him about Frederick Douglass and what he had to go through to even get the opportunity to learn how to read.
I had previously viewed Douglass in this stodgy way we often view historical figures, but when I signed on to The Good Lord Bird, I began to research him more deeply. Douglass was a rockstar, essentially Prince or Little Richard. Look at how he dressed and kept his hair! He was not trying to be small. He was, before anybody else was, a genius at pulling in a crowd and orating to them. He was like, “I’m here, I’m now and I’m going to run for vice president.”
When Douglass met John Brown, he realized they shared a mutual fire within them. Brown was essentially going on a suicide mission and, while Douglass was smart enough to understand what the consequences might be, he wanted to help in some way. When John Brown and his comrades were hanged as a result of their failed raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859, they all said Frederick Douglass had nothing to do with their mission. Was that true? Well, it saved Douglass’s life. Was it possible that Douglass was never part of their plan? Was it possible that Douglass had provided Brown with money, an act that would be considered treason? He was definitely on the hit list to be killed, 100%. What saved him was that John Brown’s men said Douglass betrayed them.
We have this thing in television called a “tone meeting,” where a [writer] goes through the script and tells you what they’re trying to accomplish in each scene. I don’t find it very helpful, because I think it should be pretty clear on the page. But this particular tone meeting was the best I’ve ever had. We didn’t talk about what was written on the page but more about how we could humanize these characters and make them fun to watch. James McBride has no interest in preaching to the converted and neither do I. His book touched people (who would have never read a book about John Brown) because it’s incredibly entertaining and full of love and that’s what we talked about. What makes a three-dimensional human being that everyone can connect to and enjoy? It’s their enjoyment of life, and Frederick Douglass and John Brown certainly had that.
Filmmaker: When you’re coming onto a series that has already hit the ground running, what does your personal pre-production process consist of? Certainly, some aspects are already established by the prior episodes, but how did you make your work on the series distinctly your own?
Martin: I never make it distinctly my own. It is always distinctly the actors! I will never put chains on a performance to pacify a camera or shot. I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years and at this point in my life there’s nothing I haven’t seen. People say, “Oh, we do everything long lens” or “we do everything wide lens” or “everything handheld” or “we don’t come off the sticks, the tripod,” etc. These ideas can sometimes be very arbitrary. The lenses and aspect ratio are chosen for me. There’s a color palette that the production design creates, but I can have some say in that. The costume design is also something I’m able to have a hand in, especially on this series.
Filmmaker: Had you worked with the cinematographer, Peter Deming, before?
Martin: I hadn’t.
Filmmaker: His previous series for Showtime, Twin Peaks: The Return, consisted of 18 episodes shot with one specific director as if it were one extremely long movie. Were you able to chat with him in-depth about what you were hoping to achieve here?
Martin: Absolutely. Peter was great. I like my blocking to come organically from the performances, so I held rehearsals on weekends with the cast when they had downtime. I would call Peter and say, “I’m thinking about doing the scene like this” and send some overheads or ask if he could attend our rehearsal. We have this really big scene on the porch in our episode and we blocked that out in the rehearsal. I like to block-shoot a lot, because I feel that helps me out, time-wise. I try to save as much time as I can when on set and our camera setups are usually agreed on [prior to the shoot]. Sometimes you say, “I just need two angles on this scene,” then see some magic happen between the actors and go, “Wait a minute, I need to be tighter here” or “I need to come around over here” or an actor may turn their body a certain way and you see something new. You try to build for those discoveries. It was nice to have that extra time, to explore those creative what-ifs.
Filmmaker: Your episode provides a stark geographical shift, removing our two leads from rural surroundings and having them travel to Rochester, New York via train. There’s an extended sequence between John and Onion aboard the train that takes us from the afternoon into the evening, allowing you to employ what appears to be natural light, whether that’s via sunlight in the afternoon or candlelight above each row of seats in the evening.
Martin: One of the things I wanted was for that sequence to feel like the train scene in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist. Vittorio Storaro uses lighting to emphasize emotion and it makes you feel the characters’ journey. The passengers we surrounded John Brown and Onion with change throughout the duration of their trip. When John Brown and Onion first come aboard, the other people are country-ish. In the later scene, the passengers are more citified, reflected via the lighting and their clothing. I wanted to personally direct the backdrop of the ride, of what you see through the train windows. You know when you’re writing on a train and the sunlight momentarily disappears behind a mountain or begins flashing through the trees? There’s a musicality to the movement and I was obsessed with making sure our lighting would replicate that. Using candlelight was one such answer for us. That’s what was used on traincars back then, and our production designer, John Blackie, came up with the idea for us to try it. Hopefully the lighting and the wardrobe of the people in that car emphasize the change.
Filmmaker: When the leads visit the home of Frederick Douglass, the scene has to appear naturally lit via candlelight as well, the light subtly accommodating each of the actors’ skin tones. Did you shoot that interior on a soundstage?
Martin: No, in Virginia in a home from that time period. Peter lit that very well. We rehearsed those scenes quite a bit, especially the scene at Douglass’s dinner table. The actors playing the servers would come in and actually serve food whenever we rehearsed and we built our camera moves around the serving of the courses. In some dinner scenes in film and television, you notice that no one’s eating and drinking. I wanted to really focus on the servers, always in the background, and to note when they entered and left the room, what they’re in the room for, where they stand in the room, etc. I wanted to show the correct etiquette. When you bring real food and props into a scene, everything changes, including the writing. If the actor is being served a drink and they suddenly have to speak, they have to work around that.
Filmmaker: Daveed Diggs is most famously known for playing an exaggerated, slightly altered version of an American historical figure (Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton) but Douglass is someone else entirely. What discussions did you have with Diggs about being truthful to his portrayal of Douglass while also allowing him to embrace the dynamic elements of who Diggs is as a performer?
Martin: Well, Daveed is a rockstar as well and has so much enthusiasm and love for Douglass. We both worked to humanize the man. One of the things that makes me interested in Jesus Christ, for example, is Christ having a moment of doubt in the garden of Gethsemane and admitting, “I’m scared. I’m terrified. I don’t want to do this.” That doubt humanizes him. When you humanize your gods, you can connect with them. That’s what we wanted to achieve with Douglass. James McBride gave us this phenomenal work where the gods were humanized, so Daveed and I talked a lot about African-American culture, and in particular, the story of the Br’er Rabbit. Do you know that story?
Martin: It’s a folklore from Africa about this trickster rabbit who can always outfox the fox. Sure, a fox can eat a rabbit and the fox has more physical strength and claws and whatever else, but the rabbit can get away by tricking the fox and not coming at him head-on. You defeat the fox by using your cleverness, your wit and your charisma. Frederick Douglass could similarly spin you with his words and get you lost in his speeches. He would spin and dazzle you in a blender of his words and charisma.
In a sense, John Brown, as a white man becoming something of a brother to Black men and women, takes on the character traits of Br’er Rabbit too. That’s how McBride wrote the character in his novel, like he’s a Richard Pryor or a Dave Chappelle. Personally, I really don’t think that Black lives will matter to white people until John Brown becomes the white man’s messiah—when they stop worshipping Thomas Jefferson and all these other racist motherfuckers and start putting John Brown statues all over the place and create a John Brown University and name streets after him. When they start doing that shit, then Black lives will matter.
Filmmaker: While I imagine there’s still a ton of progress that needs to be made in regard to Hollywood’s behind-the-camera hiring processes, when it comes to determining who gets to tell these stories, do you feel like The Good Lord Bird is a step in the right direction? Other directors involved in the series include Albert Hughes and Kevin Hooks, filmmakers who came up in the early 1990s much like yourself.
Martin: I can only speak for myself, but I had complete freedom on this project. Ethan stepped back and wanted to hear everything McBride and I were discussing. I should mention Michelle Poole, a production supervisor on the series, is also African-American and contributed to these discussions. My mother is white, and it’s funny because Ethan based some of the essence of John Brown on another white person he knew that was a lot like my mom. They both share this version of Christianity that is like hippie love, focused on crazy hardcore civil rights and love, love, love, love. I’ve seen John Brown portrayed as a lunatic in the past but he was not a lunatic. When I think of Christ, I think of absolute openness, of love and forever turning the other cheek. That absolute charity is a part of who we have to be to see everyone as ourselves. When I had a child, it opened me up to seeing every child as my own, and I think that’s what happened to John Brown too. Onion wasn’t John Brown’s biological child, but he loved him as much as one of his own.
Ethan and his wife Ryan [another executive producer on the series] have young children who had to remain in New York to attend school, and being away from your family for that long can be brutal. Ethan had to be in Virginia producing and writing and starring in this series away from his family, but he kept a stiff upper lip about it. One of the things I kept saying to him and Ryan was, “I know it’s tough to be away from your kids for a long time, but just know that this work is important. We’re making something that will reach people who would never have learned about this otherwise. That’s a huge gift.” If the series can change three minds, that’s fucking huge, because those minds can change other people’s minds, right? Let Frederick Douglass and John Brown come into your living room with your kids and your husband or your wife for an evening and let them talk about the shit we’re talking about now. If we had dealt with it then, we wouldn’t be dealing with it now.
Before arriving on set, I was able to view some dailies [from previous episodes] and saw Ethan do that speech about how if someone kidnapped your sibling and worked them to death or raped your sister, John Brown would find that man and put a knife through their eye (and if he didn’t find that man, he would do that to the person who laughed at that man’s jokes). I quoted this to a friend of mine and said “That’s why you have to love John Brown.” And my friend said, “Well, he’s crazy,” And I’m like, “No, he’s not crazy. You know what fucking crazy is? What fucking crazy is kidnapping people, ripping children away from their parents, killing them, enslaving them, murdering them, raping them, torturing them. That’s fucking crazy. That’s a fucking serial killer.” And we’re still ripping children away from their parents, often right off their mother’s breast. Those people deserve to be thrown in jail. They’re insane. Guys like Stephen Miller need mental help. If we would’ve fucking dealt with this when John Brown and Frederick Douglass were alive, we wouldn’t be dealing with it now. Instead we get people who call John Brown crazy for doing what he did. He wasn’t the first one, of course, with Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner coming before him. But you know what’s crazy? Putting your knee on George Floyd’s neck. Everyone saw that that was fucking crazy. And that’s why I’ll say again: until John Brown becomes the messiah of the white man, Black lives will never matter to white Americans.