Since Albert and Allen Hughes — known professionally as the Hughes brothers — split up around 2004 to direct solo projects, individual output has been uneven in terms of volume, acclaim and box office. Allen’s highlight was the 2017 HBO documentary series “The Defiant Ones,” about music producers Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. While Albert directed his first solo feature film in 2018, the historical adventure “Alpha.” While the former’s follow-up remains a mystery, the latter will make his first major foray into television, signing up to direct and executive produce Showtime’s limited series based on author James McBride’s 2013 book, “The Good Lord Bird,” replacing Anthony Hemingway.
A winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, the first person narrative follows Henry Shackleford, a mid-19th century slave in Kansas who accidentally encounters abolitionist John Brown and joins his movement. Ethan Hawke, who is also co-writing and executive producing the series, is starring as Brown. Search for an actor to play Shackleford, in what should be a plump role, is underway.
The series represents the highest profile screen project on Brown and his legendary acts of rebellion. Quentin Tarantino was especially interested in bringing the abolitionist’s story to the big screen in 2009, calling Brown his “favorite American who ever lived.” The project never happened, and he made “Django Unchained” instead.
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For Albert Hughes, “The Good Lord Bird” marks his entry into the TV universe, joining countless creatives of color who have found a broader range of opportunity there. And with a production team that includes hitmaker Jason Blum, as well as the top-shelf acting talents of Ethan Hawke, telling the story of a key figure in the abolitionist movement, based on an award-winning book, Hughes may have hit the talent and IP jackpot from the outset.
The limited series joins a basket of slavery-themed films and TV series that are currently in the works, including Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet Tubman biopic, “Harriet”; a limited television event series based on “Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo,” the critically praised, recently discovered book by 20th century writer Zora Neale Hurston; “Black America,” from Will Packer and Aaron McGruder, which envisions an alternate history where newly freed African Americans have secured the Southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama post-Reconstruction as reparations for slavery; and more.
Hollywood’s seeming renewed interest in slavery-themed scripts is a curious one. It’s not tied to any particular historic event, as was the case during the period leading up to, and just after the year 2015, which saw a spate of related films and TV series (“12 Years a Slave” and “Underground” notably) launched to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War, beginning the Reconstruction era. It could very well be an unconscious reaction to the current administration’s policies that effectively reset historical record, undoing several principles of action set by previous leadership.
“The Good Lord Bird” limited series is expected to air on Showtime in 2020.
In addition to that project, Hughes also has “The Fury of a Patient Man” — an American remake of the multiple award winning 2016 Spanish thriller directed by Raúl Arévalo — on his to-do list.