Daveed Diggs gives Ethan Hawke a run for his money in “Mister Fred”, while painting another unflattering portrait of a great American hero.
This recap of The Good Lord Bird episode 3, “Mister Fred”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
Since The Good Lord Bird began, it has revolved – despite being told from the perspective of another character altogether – around the insistent black-hole gravity of Ethan Hawke’s absurdly charismatic performance as famed nutty abolitionist John Brown. The third episode, “Mister Fred”, changes that dynamic somewhat by introducing another historical figure, another American hero, who is just as wild and eccentric and self-obsessed – the Mister Fred of the title, Frederick Douglass, here played by Daveed Diggs, having long-since honed a talent for grandiose verbosity on-stage with Hamilton.
Douglass is a fixture of every retelling of American history as an undeniable component of dismantling slavery as an institution. His charisma, courage, and ample intellect allowed him to escape slavery himself and to allow others to do the same through the Underground Railroad and by preaching and fundraising. The Good Lord Bird agrees with these assessments of his character but adds a few of its own, including narcissism, and an uncontrollable horniness for his wife Anna (Tamberla Perry), his mistress Ottilie (Lex King), and to a slightly lesser extent Onion.
Here in “Mister Fred”, which is what Onion calls Douglass, much to his horror, the cause of abolition means a different thing than what we’ve seen it mean to Brown. For him, slavery is against God, and that’s that; for Douglass, there are much more complex social and political elements to consider, and both men clash over the finer points. They’re explicitly presented as stark opposites in every sense, and thus far Douglass is the only Black man we’ve seen with any kind of legitimate station. He isn’t just free, but pampered, living in luxury and doted on by women, servants, and crowds that assemble for his speechifying. The bloody, muddy battles on the front lines of the abolitionist cause are Brown’s wheelhouse, whereas Douglass is better suited to elegance and splendor. This is where the primary cause of conflict between them arises.
See, Brown doesn’t believe that the cause can be achieved with speeches, a viewpoint that history lends credence to, but in the context of “Mister Fred”, he’s a white man telling a Black man how best to tackle the institution that once considered him a piece of property – and it doesn’t go unremarked upon. Both men are prone to grandiosity but of a different kind. Brown wants to raise an army of enslaved people against their masters with funding from the enigmatic Secret Six; Douglass believes this is the wrong approach and that, quite understandably, he knows better. But Brown’s devotion to the cause is never belittled, and despite how obviously crackers he is, his suggestions for a bloodier approach aren’t presented at the ravings of a madman but of someone who has had everything he loves forcibly wrested from him and found some small salvation in the Lord. It’s a complex interpretation of widely-known real-life figures who both believe themselves to be on the right side of history.
If there’s a knock against “Mister Fred”, though, it’s how pleased it is with itself, and with its own outlandish reinterpretations of men plucked from the history books and given surreal proportions as towering avatars of revolution. The acting is sublime, with Hawke and Diggs competing for the MVP, and there are as many gags as there are moments of profundity. Like Douglass himself, The Good Lord Bird knows how to turn a phrase. But like Brown himself, it sometimes can’t tell when it’s going too far.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.