If you’re of the mindset that the amount of slavery stories in the media is just “torture porn,” think again, according to The Good Lord Bird star Orlando Jones.
“I don’t think that anyone looks at a film like Schindler’s List and immediately shoves it into the ‘murder porn’ category. But I’m sure there are plenty of people of Jewish with the Jewish faith and of German descent who are tired of the Jewish history and narrative to be defined so greatly about the Holocaust, right?” he said. “I feel that because of what’s happening on social media, because of what’s happening in the real world there is absolutely this feeling that we all have of ‘Do I need to see another black person get beat to death or murdered on camera? Like it is that I’m done with that, that I feel myself oversaturated with those images.”
“…I do think that we’ve got to stop coming up with reasonings and my humble opinion,” he continued. “It diminishes the work of people of color. [The novel The Good Lord Bird is written by James McBride, a Black man.] We can’t, on one end, scream about how important diversity is and how we need more of it and how we need to hear these stories. Then a Black storyteller of note shows up, tells his story and finds a way to do it [that] isn’t like the stories you heard before, [that] has an irreverent comedic quality that doesn’t entirely look at life in the same way that others do, people want to dissect whether or not it’s murder porn. That just means you’re willing to [paint the story] from a negative brush and not give it the same reverence…of all these other things that could equally be described as ‘murder porn.'”
“The reason we have so many stories about the Holocaust is because, again, people of the Jewish faith who see and understand that history are making sure that it never happens again,” he said. “That’s why so many stories have been told about it–it was for that purpose. That’s why we have museums. That’s the purpose–to inform, educate and inspire. So, I sincerely hope the media, the Black media in particular, does not make the mistake of saying, ‘Oh, I’m done talking about race. No–I’m done talking about the same Black thinkers that we talk about every Black history month…Let’s introduce new folks to talk about because there are so many people to talk about that we haven’t spoken about, whose stories are interesting.”
Jones displays the same fire for truth and history in his portrayal of the mysterious Rail Man, someone who helps radical abolitionist John Brown (Ethan Hawke) try to achieve his dream of eradicating slavery in America.
“[He’s] proud, dangerous. Those would be my descriptions,” he said of his character. “I think because a lot of things are coming together in his life at a particular point and they’re causing a number of issues. You know, obviously, his family is in bondage. He’s trying to get them all out. He doesn’t have all of them out, you know, he’s dangerous because there’s no telling what he’s going to do.”
The Rail Man’s life is one full of pressure, and John Brown’s machinations are apt to ruin all of the Rail Man’s plans to free his family.
“The stakes are too high. It’s his family and John Brown coming [to town] makes everything unstable in terms of what he’s trying to do for his family,” said Brown. “So I just feel like any time any human is under that level of pressure, they just [get] a little dangerous and unpredictable.”
Also unpredictable–Rail Man’s lack of social graces, as described by Jones and shown in the Rail Man’s introductory scene, when the Rail Man lobs a long trail of spit as he’s talking to Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson).
“One of the things I’ve noticed about older men is that they don’t care about social grace ’cause when they were born in the mid or early 1800s…people [who lived] in the 1930s or forties, they could care less about spitting,” he said. “They’ll be talking to you and they’ll just turn sideways and spit, particularly in the South. For people who worked in the field who worked [in a] more agrarian [way], [as] farmers…it feels like they’re somehow connected to the earth and to the environment and I really wanted him to have that quality. So for young Onion to be face-to-face with somebody who’s just talking to you and just turns sideways, spits, and keeps right on going like it didn’t happen, to see my great-granddad do that, I was like, man, this would really be a beautiful little sort of character thing for him to have.
The critically-acclaimed series has been praised for adding irreverence and, daringly, humor into a dramatic subgenre that’s usually portrayed as sad and depressing. Understandably so–slavery was, indeed, sad, depressing, and horrific. But The Good Lord Bird‘s winning formula comes from upending stereotypes and tropes. One example comes from one of Jones’ favorite parts of the series.
“The funniest conversation…in my opinion, is when [the abolitionists] and [the slavers] are having a conversation and they want to shoot each other. But shooting each other isn’t going to help them accomplish anything,” he said. “So everybody has got their guns cocked and John Brown is piping off at the mouth, and they think he’s a raving mad man, but shooting him at that moment is only going to get them shot in the end. So because of that, cooler heads prevail and the conversations that come out are hysterical.”
“The sides are so clearly drawn, but nobody shoots anybody while at the same time, there are other moments [when] no matter what side [they’re on], the slavers or the abolitionists, they walk in and they execute people in the name of their side,” he continued. “Both sides condemn people on the other side who do that while supportive of people on their side who do the opposite.”
The upending continues in every way. In a typical series about John Brown, the figure might have been positioned as a holier-than-thou white savior. But in The Good Lord Bird, Hawkes’ Brown is narrowly above seeming like the bearded guy on a street corner with a sign proclaiming the End Times. Johnson’s Onion is, in fact, a boy, but his forced by Brown to pretend to be a girl and accepts his new life in drag because life is easier for him as a Black girl than it is as a Black boy. Frederick Douglass, played to hilarious effect by Daveed Diggs, is equal parts inspiring orator and hot air, an activist who is quickly becoming complacent in his newfound fame to actually fight for Black Americans’ freedom. All of these switcheroos shows that history is always more complicated–and more ridiculous–than our current understanding allows us to believe.
Not only is the show giving a middle finger to popular social media arguments that regard slavery programming as unnecessary, but it’s also giving viewers a look at how other people in America–slaves, freed Blacks, Native Americans (such as Mo Brings Plenty’s character Ottowa Jones) and other whites–viewed slavery and worked together to try to take down white racists. For Jones, the power of The Good Lord Bird comes in part in its focus on showing people learning from each other and becoming better people, a theme explored in many of Hollywood’s most popular films.
“Really, Avatar, District 9 and Dances with Wolves are all the same story. It’s the person who was your enemy [becoming] your friend, with the personal finally seeing that,’Maybe I wasn’t on the right side of that’ [and] completely flips and goes to the other side and fight against the people [they] used to be. My hope is that this is what people will take away from viewing it.”
“…To hear that story from an incredible Black male storyteller, during the time of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery…the guy is telling this story…in a way that’s actually enjoyable, that I could actually laugh at what’s going on, but understand what’s going on and be driven towards hope. That’s the power to me of storytellers like James McBride. The actors that came [to the show], we come to it in that spirit. That’s why I’m there…We all understand that we can’t drop the ball, but we have to keep bringing these characters to life so you can actually see this tapestry.”
The Good Lord Bird airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.