Keith Murphy
Oct 2020

An almost unrecognizable stutter-step version of the venerable hymn “When the Saints Go Marching In” emanates from the old Hammond C3 organ, with author James McBride sitting at the keys. Above him, a poster reads, Do not be afraid. I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people.

We’re in the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Red Hook, Brooklyn, founded by McBride’s parents, Rev. Andrew Dennis McBride and Ruth McBride Jordan, in 1954. It’s a sanctuary for an optimistic and occasionally profane soul who says he’s more spiritual than fervently religious. 

“What this church has done for me is it’s given me a sense of peace of where I belong and who I am,” explains the 63-year-old McBride, who is still trying to come to terms with the reality that he’s now one of America’s most acclaimed writers. “It’s always been a safe place for me, even as a child. This is a place where you can make mistakes. You can get in front of the congregation and play the clarinet and sound terrible, and they will say, ‘Amen … you belong in the New York Philharmonic!’”

For McBride, New Brown Memorial, which stands across from the Red Hook housing projects where he grew up, has a way of pulling him back down to earth. Here, he’s not the celebrated author of the moving 1995 New York Times best-selling memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, both a complex love letter to the no-BS Jewish woman who raised McBride and his 11 siblings, and a coming-of-age story of a musician stumbling (often comically) through a minefield of racial identity. He’s Mr. McBride, patient mentor, self-described terrible dancer and accomplished saxophonist who teaches jazz to local children for free.

Today he looks like three different people picked his outfit. He’s got on a winter ski cap, blue suit jacket, dress shirt, black sweater and cuffed blue jeans with black boots. But maybe that’s apropos, given how many worlds his life bridges: He has toured as a sideman with jazz legend Jimmy Scott, fronted his own band and written songs for the likes of Grammy-winning R&B songstress Anita Baker and soul-jazz saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. While McBride considers himself more of a musician than a literary scribe, we are here on this brisk afternoon because Showtime is releasing a seven-part series based on his bold, irreverent novel The Good Lord Bird.

Credit: An Rong Xu

Back in 2013, McBride won the prestigious National Book Award for Fiction for the provocative and unapologetically knee-slapping book, which follows the story of lead character Henry “Onion” Shackleford, a diminutive 12-year-old enslaved boy who is hilariously mistaken for a girl and snatched up by real-life 19th-century abolitionist John Brown. Soon, the rascal child narrator finds “herself” reluctantly embedded in Brown’s rough and righteous band of believers whose God-ordained, bloody mission is to overthrow the scourge of slavery.

Onion is treated like a good-luck charm by the fanatical “Old Man” and his loyal followers, but he initially views the whole ordeal as maddening. Of Brown, Onion says, “He sprinkled most of his conversation with Bible talk, ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and ‘takest’ and so forth. He mangled the Bible more than any man I ever knowed, including my Pa, but with a bigger purpose, ’cause he knowed more words.”

Indeed, Onion’s cynicism stems from the wild idea that a crazy white man who claims to talk to God will be the savior of enslaved Black folk. The group’s violent, absurd, reimagined historical journey through Kansas and the South culminates in John Brown’s ill-fated 1859 raid on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, which would become a catalyst for the Civil War. The surviving members of Brown’s band were executed on charges of treason, murder and insurrection, and Onion lives to tell the tale in the most ludicrous way possible.

McBride, with his mischievous streak, has been lauded as a modern-day Mark Twain mixed with the subversive comic gravitas of Richard Pryor. Of course, slavery, America’s original sin, is not supposed to inspire a laugh-inducing farce. “But that was really the aim, to make it funny and human as opposed to, ‘You take your medicine, white people!’” McBride explains. “How many movies have been done about the Alamo? Harpers Ferry was far more dramatic, but it was something that was stuffed into higher bookshelves because it’s hard to consider the truth. And the truth is that John Brown was really ahead of his time. It’s just been a wonderful dream watching Ethan and Mark put this [project] together.”

For the uninitiated, that’s four-time Oscar-nominated actor Ethan Hawke and The Ice at the Bottom of the World prizewinning author turned television screenwriter Mark Richard (Party of Five, Fear the Walking Dead, The Man in the High Castle). Hawke takes on the juicy role of the crusading firebrand Brown with sincere, wild-man abandon and also serves as co-writer and executive producer of the series, set to premiere October 4.

Credit: William Gray / Showtime

When the team began shopping the pilot in late 2018, television studios were not exactly enamored of the pitch. “They were terrified of it,” claims Richard, a gregarious Southerner who sounds like he just jumped off the stage of a Tennessee Williams play.

“This one executive said to me, ‘I was reading the script and I laughed, but I didn’t know I was allowed to laugh,’” says Richard. “They would say, ‘No, no, no, we can’t do that.’ But if you don’t understand the humor of the book then you are not going to understand the book in its entirety. It’s a satire and it’s fun. We gotta learn to laugh at ourselves and with each other. [On set,] James was always having to explain to white people that it was ok to laugh.”

Hawke, whose celluloid résumé includes Reality Bites, Training Day, Before Sunset and Boyhood, credits McBride’s unpretentious, fearless writing with freeing the production from such tiptoeing. “When I finished the book, I had so many feelings and one of them was just abject jealousy that somebody had made such a beautiful work,” says Hawke, who praises his wife, Ryan, with obsessively pushing him to read The Good Lord Bird. (She’s an executive producer on the series.)

Hawke is well aware of the risk of playing such a polarizing figure as Brown, who, depending on your perspective, is either an American martyr who changed history for the better or an anti-government fanatic who tore the country apart. “But I loved playing him,” Hawke says. “It was a razor’s edge because if you ever stop making fun of how absurd this situation is—this white guy who thinks he’s Moses—if you ever stop making fun of him, you’ve lost the plot. And if you don’t admire John Brown you’ve lost the plot.”

Initially, McBride did not take Hawke’s interest in The Good Lord Bird seriously, due to the author’s suspicion of Hollywood. Before linking up with Showtime, his previous experience with both film and TV had been through fellow New Yorker Spike Lee, writing the screenplay for Lee’s World War II drama, Miracle at St. Anna (2008), which was adapted from the author’s 2003 novel about the Black buffalo soldiers of the legendary 92nd Infantry Division. A follow-up film collaboration with Lee, Red Hook Summer, was released in 2012. “Spike is not Hollywood,” McBride interjects. “Spike is Spike. He’s a noun… house, car, tree, Spike.”

Credit: William Gray / Showtime

When McBride finally met face-to-face with Hawke in 2018, he was impressed by not only the actor-director’s passionate knowledge of all things John Brown, but also his distilled humility. “The guy rode his bike to the church!” McBride marvels. “I told him he should leave it here while we go out to eat, so he rolled it up the ramp. And Ms. Barbara, one of the church officials, looked at him and said, ‘Are you the guy who came to fix the air conditioner?’ Ethan just cracked up.”

As for pulling the production together, “We’re just a couple of white guys channeling McBride,” says Hawke. “We knew we needed African American points of view, whether it’s casting, photography or directing.” Among the more crucial credits is Albert Hughes (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents, The Book of Eli, Alpha), who directed two episodes. Hawke believes the Detroit native’s straight-no-chaser eye was invaluable. They also found a gem with young actor Joshua Caleb-Johnson as Onion. “He was just on the cusp of adolescence,” says Richard. “He was perfect, still sort of childlike. The performances he’s turned in have been phenomenal.”

When viewers tune in to Showtime’s seven-episode series  they’ll be transported to a tumultuous era in American history turned on its head. At first, Onion is far from heroic. He initially sees John Brown as a delusional crank and even dismisses his idealistic followers as “nothing but a ragtag assortment of the scrawniest, bummiest, saddest-looking individuals you ever saw.”

But the savvy facade of wearing the dress Brown tossed him when they met has certain advantages. A running gag is that while whites buy into the gender switch, which allows Onion to avoid deadly combat, most of the enslaved people see right through the ruse. Staying in character also allows him to eat good johnnycake and guzzle rotgut whisky down his cavernous mouth. “But the fact is, when it’s time to make a choice, Onion makes the right choice,” McBride says of his favorite character to date. “And that makes him loveable.”

Credit: An Rong Xu

Both the novel and the series have cameos featuring icons of African American history. Beloved freedom fighter Harriet Tubman, when she briefly meets Onion, comes across as a deified beacon of hope. Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs), on the other hand, appears in a less flattering light. McBride still laughs at the blowback he received when he re-envisioned the towering orator and abolitionist as a pompous, womanizing drunk, comically perturbed at the young “girl” Onion’s informality: “Why do you address me as Fred? Don’t you know you are not addressing a pork chop, but rather a fairly considerable and incorrigible piece of the American Negro diaspora?”

“I have tremendous respect for Frederick Douglass,” says McBride of the father of American civil rights who was a real-life confidant and admirer of Brown, but allegedly broke a promise to his ride-or-die comrade by not joining the Harpers Ferry insurrection. “It was just so funny. First of all, Douglass had a Black wife and two white girlfriends who lived in the house with him on two different occasions. And that’s weird even today.”

If McBride comes off as defiant when calling out the absurdities of racial dysfunction in America, that’s a fire that was first lit during his boyhood in Brooklyn. His mother, Ruth, a Polish immigrant whose family came to America in 1923, faced anti-Semitism in southern Virginia. She was disowned after moving to Harlem and marrying a Black Baptist minister, a societal taboo back in those days and illegal in some states. Ruth converted to Christianity and helped her husband, Andrew McBride, start a fledgling church in their living room, and eventually they founded New Brown Memorial.

Born on September 11, 1957, McBride never got the chance to meet his father, who died of cancer, leaving a devastated and pregnant Ruth a widow with eight kids. As documented in The Color of Water, which to date has sold 2.5 million copies, even as a child, he knew that his family was different. When they moved to Brooklyn, the colorful McBride clan was stared at by both whites and some Blacks as if they had just crash-landed from another dimension. Racial epithets became the norm. When young James asked his mother if he were Black or white she responded, “You are a human being. Educate yourself or you’ll be a nobody!” Although they had little money, the competitive McBride household has since produced doctors, lawyers, chemists, nurses, professors and a headlining author.

McBride makes it known that his mother, who later married Hunter Jordan, a man who would become an indelible father figure for James, was also a woman of her times. Ruth was eventually accepted in the largely Black Red Hook projects and supported the 1960s civil rights movement. “One of the ladies in the church told me just a couple months ago, ‘James, I didn’t even know your mom was white until I read the book,’” says McBride. 

Credit: An Rong Xu

Today, the author says family and God are the only reasons he wasn’t taken by the streets like some of the young men he ran with after dropping out of high school. From there, the story becomes dizzying. After earning his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, McBride had various reporting gigs at The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and People before abruptly switching lanes to pursue a lifelong dream as a composer and touring musician. The hardcore jazz head is proud to count the great 90-year-old tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins as a friend. “We never talk about music,” McBride notes. “We only talk about how to do good in the world.”

Over the years, the restless writer has tackled pre-Civil War supernatural fiction (2008’s Song Yet Sung) and unorthodox music bios (2016’s Kill ’Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul). But in 2010, McBride found himself in a dark hole.

“I had a terrible divorce,” he confesses. “My mother died and my niece passed, and all this was happening at once. I was in a lot of debt. At some point, as I started to peer through the cloud of my own self-pity, I started getting a little more religious. I asked God, If you get me out of this, I will serve you the rest of my life.”

Still, McBride’s brand of spirituality blurs lines. Far from pious, he smirks and apologizes after cursing inside New Brown Memorial. He is, after all, the same mischievous kid who cracked jokes on the corner near his projects building, the same man whose beloved jazz breaks formal rules. Adding to the complexity, he’s fully embraced his mother’s Jewish side, yet knows he will always be seen as a Black man by the world.

This jumble of American contradiction is the man’s essence. Fittingly, he calls his latest novel, Deacon King Kong, about a Brooklyn man of God who shoots a drug dealer, “funny.” And, true to form, McBride says he will continue to cross lines and craft the kind of stories that America may not always want to hear, but needs to. “The language of race is so lame… it’s so stilted,” he muses. “Everyone’s pain is relative and everyone’s pain should be respected. There’s an embarrassing amount of information that each side witnesses about the other. And that’s what makes us one big dysfunctional family.”

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