Not a lot happens plot wise in “Mr. Fred”, the third episode of The Good Lord Bird. There is no “bleeding Kansas“, no justice raining down on wicked townspeople, or fiery speeches in front of exploding cannons. No, the only things that happen are a train ride, watching some speeches, and dinner with a prominent 19th Century abolitionist and his family. And yet Episode 3 is an incredible thrill ride nonetheless, because it is the episode in which Onion is introduced to Frederick Douglass and we are finally graced with Daveed Diggs’ arrival on the show.
Diggs is a monumental talent. He leapt (literally) onto the scene with his performance as Lafayette and Jefferson in Hamilton. His particular appeal in that musical is incredible, but also hard to even describe. Electric and indelible are among the right words but they hardly do it justice. Seeing Diggs in that show was one of those theatrical experiences people talk about for 50 years.
Before Hamilton went to Broadway, I also attended a theatrical awards show where they were presenting Diggs with an award and got to meet him. His personal charisma was just as palpable off stage. He is a person who has a presence. When you are in a room with him it is almost impossible not to be drawn into his orbit. Hamilton went on to win a ton of Tony awards including a win in the Best Featured Actor in Musical category for Diggs. But despite all of those accolades and his incredible presence as both an actor and musician, it was starting to seem like Diggs would remain a Broadway name and never really get a big television break.
When he was on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as Perry, one of Kimmy’s boyfriends, I watched every episode he appeared in and grew more and more frustrated. His presence remained just as palpable, but the writing of the character never really pushed the envelope in the ways the show could sometimes do well, and in the end his few appearances added up to very little. His voice work on animated shows like Bob’s Burgers, BoJack Horseman, and Star Wars: Resistance was much more compelling because he was able to use his talents more, but still for those of us who really wanted to see him take off, it wasn’t quite right. (I haven’t seen any of the episodes of Black-ish that he was on so I can’t speak to Diggs’s work on that show, but it does seem like a better fit of actor and material.)
A few weeks ago I probably would have said that it was unlikely a TV show fit could be found for him. And then I saw the trailer for The Good Lord Bird. There he was, as Frederick Douglass, and it was perfect. In fact the idea of watching Daveed Diggs in this role was a large part of what drew me into watching this show in the first place.
And what a splash that portrayal turns out to be. This entire episode is just different than the show has been so far. It’s got an energy—a rambunctious, fully modern, and yes quite theatrical, edge to it all the way through. Diggs portrays Douglass with a regal presence and that is something Brown definitely also believes.
We see that Brown thinks of Douglass differently than anyone else and even uses the term “the King of the Negroes” when referring to Douglass on several occasions. For Brown this is more than just a playful title he has given Douglass. To him, Douglass being a “king” allows and excuses any of his eccentricities and all of his sins. For the ultra-religious Brown this all just makes Douglass more compelling.
Douglass is an elegant speaker, an oratorical master. From the first moments he shows up on screen the way that Diggs plays the character is just different from anything one normally sees on television. It is the theatricality of the performance that I think makes it work so well, and that’s a quality I think is really important that the show’s director, Darnell Martin, allowed Diggs to play. The show has been playing around with form quite a bit so far: there have been great song choices in the soundtrack that are of modern soul and rock music, there have been quick flashes to various actors facing the camera representing the souls of slaves, and the cuts and camera movements are much more reminiscent of a Spike Lee joint than a Ken Burns documentary.
Martin’s direction compounds all of those modernist impulses in this episode. The shadows around the characters sometimes seem to be taking a life of their own. Every time a scene change is about to happen the vocal track starts before the scene changes, which happens all the time in shows and movies, but here it is different, it is much earlier, often two or three lines and the voiceover seems to be a commentary on the scene change itself, especially as it is almost always Douglass’s words that are bleeding over. It gives the impression that Douglass’s presence is so outsized that he can’t even fit into his own scenes.
In the same way Diggs plays the character with a brashness and delivers his lines with a modern tone. Taken all together it seems almost to elevate the character out of the time of the show. Frederick Douglass, at least as he is played by Daveed Diggs in this show, does not belong to the 1850s, or even the 19th century. He is everywhere, all the time.
Which also seems appropriate for the introduction of such an eminent historical figure. John Brown certainly had an impact in his time, and many people today remember at least a little about his life and rebellion but Frederick Douglass was something else altogether. Even in the whitewashed history of the 19th Century that many Americans learn in school, Douglass is still unassailable. He began life as a slave, escaped, became an author, an orator and a statesman. Even living half his life while so many people of his color were still in bondage. He also was brash, controversial, and salacious to many. By the time of his death in 1895 Douglass was easily the most famous Black man in America and one of the most important historical figures of his century.
It is unclear at this point if Douglass will turn out to be an antagonist to Brown and Onion and the gang. Though Onion’s ominous line near the end of the episode, “Had I known what was coming, I expect I would have taken that little derringer…out of my pants pocket and popped Mr. Douglass right there,” does not portend that the relationship will end well. Of course, we know Brown’s rebellion will not last until the end of the 1850s while Douglass will remain alive and important until nearly the end of the century. It is clear they can’t go down together. But for now, Douglass is set up less in opposition to Brown in the plot and more set to be his diametrical opposite while on the same side of the war against slavery.
And the contrasts to Hawke’s portrayal of Brown are each meaningful and interesting in their own right. Diggs’ Douglass is erudite, sophisticated, and oratorically masterful. Ethan Hawke’s Brown is impulsive, savage, and prone to mumble. Brown obviously reveres Douglass and every interaction between the two is colored by the respect and deference that Brown shows Douglass. This allows him to hold back his considerably less socially acceptable traits in order to work with Douglass. When the two are together Brown seems to lose his religious bluster, his anger, and his dominant and oppressive sides. Even when Douglass is doing something that Brown dislikes, Brown shows him an extreme amount of deference. It is obvious that Douglass is not on board with Brown’s plans and that he does not even want Brown to be there. But he also seems to have genuine positive feelings for Brown as well.
Early in the episode Brown and Onion take a train to Rochester to meet up with Douglass. During the trip, a racist conductor orders Onion to leave the car that is reserved for “whites only”. The aggression will not stand with John Brown, even if he is supposed to be traveling incognito. He brandishes his holstered gun and orders the conductor to apologize. Several passengers know that this is THE John Brown and beg the conductor not to make trouble and just do as he is asked so no one will get killed.
The legend of John Brown is already enough that the conductor folds and they go on their way. By pointing this out the show is able to give Hawke another showcase scene for the broader side of his masterful performance as Brown. Also, and most importantly, it shows the changing nature of the status of the characters. As they head north, and as they gain more fame, the world around them also changes. By virtue of being with Brown, Onion now has a different status than most people of his race. By virtue of his fame Brown now lives a different life than before. These themes of fame and social status pervade the episode.
The Black experience in Rochester, as presented in “Mr. Fred“ is remarkably different from anything we have seen previously. Here the Black people not only have rights and can proudly, (and most importantly, freely) live out in public, they also at least appear to have some of the privileges of higher socio-economic status. The families that Brown and Onion pass on their way to see Douglass have much higher class clothing, they have carriages, they even have people serving them. And then once they actually get to Douglass’s home, the benefits of status keep on taking surprising turns.
Douglass is not only rich and famous, he is living with both his wife and his mistress. His wife, Anna (Tamberla Perry) who is Black, is very much in favor of Douglass working with John Brown. She wants him to commit in any way necessary to the cause of ending slavery. Douglass’s mistress, Ottilie Assing (Lex King), a white German woman, is just as adamant that Frederick should not associate with Brown at all. In case there is any doubt of the nature of their relationships, that is removed when Ottilie reveals her methods of “convincing” Frederick to take her side.
The way in which Frederick and Ottilie interacted so openly affectionately was pretty surprising and definitely plays incredibly well into the notion of fame and status allowing them to be able to do something that would have otherwise seemed unthinkable at the time. As to the actual historical record, there is definitely proof that Frederick Douglass and Ottilie Assing had some sort of intimate association, and that Anna and Ottilie were not super fond of each other, but the exact details of their private lives are unclear. Douglass would however, famously, and controversially for the times, marry a different woman, the prominent white feminist Helen Pitts, later in his life. Which was groundbreaking and important as well.
Douglass agrees to help Brown as much as he can, at first. Then he and Onion get super drunk and Douglass learns that Brown’s army consists of ten men. “Ten! That’s not even a dozen!” he cries out before passing out crying in Onion’s lap. It seems likely he’s less keen on actually sending the money after all. Immediately afterward Onion contemplates escaping through the secret basement passage out of Douglass’s house and leaving Brown to fend for himself. But in the end, he can’t bring himself to abandon the “old man” and the two of them end the episode in a carriage heading back toward the rest of the “army” and one step closer to meeting their fates.
All images courtesy of Showtime