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James McBride's Slavery-Set 'Good Lord Bird' Wins Top National Book Awards Prize. Film Adaptation Next?

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by Tambay A. Obenson
November 21, 2013 11:24 AM
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James McBride, Good Lord Bird

It maybe shouldn't be a surprise that a slave-themed novel won the prestigious National Book Award For Fiction this year (revealed during a ceremony last night), given the interest in slave-themed films and TV series we've seen on both the big and small screens in the last 12 months, and will continue to see over the next year.


On Wednesday night, author and screenwriter (Red Hook Summer, Miracle at St. Anna) James McBride was declared fiction category winner at the 2013 National Book Awards ceremony in New York, for his novel The Good Lord Bird - the memoir of a 103-year-old black man, who claims to have served with abolitionist John Brown, while pretending to be a girl in order to do be able to do so.

Described as a work of humor, here's a longer description of the novel via Amazon.com:

Abolitionist John Brown calls her “Little Onion,” but her real name is Henry. A slave in Kansas mistaken for a girl due to the sackcloth smock he was wearing when Brown shot his master, the light-skinned, curly-haired 12-year-old ends up living as a young woman, most often encamped with Brown’s renegade band of freedom warriors as they traverse the country, raising arms and ammunition for their battle against slavery. Though they travel to Rochester, New York, to meet with Frederick Douglass and Canada to enlist the help of Harriet Tubman, Brown and his ragtag army fail to muster sufficient support for their mission to liberate African Americans, heading inexorably to the infamously bloody and pathetic raid on Harpers Ferry.

And as we all know, Brown was unsuccessful in his attempt to start a slave revolt at Harper's Ferry in 1859; however that occurrence helped fuel the movement that started the Civil War.

I should also note that this news comes a day after the announcement that Giancarlo Esposito will be directing a feature film on abolitionist John Brown, titled Patriotic Treason, based on a book, which will star Ed Harris, while Esposito will play Frederick Douglass

And as I noted in that post last night, actor, Paul Giamatti has partnered with FX to develop a mini-series on John Brown as well, which will trace the true story of the abolitionist’s transformation from a lowly 50-year old farmer to a notorious anti-slavery freedom fighter in Kansas and his famed 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry.

The project, itself also based on a book, is expected to be 6 to 8 hours in length.

I'm sure you can guess where I'm going with all this...

Clearly there's interest in on-screen tellings of John Brown's story. Long-time readers of S&A will remember that in 2009, prior to Django UnchainedQuentin Tarantino revealed his plans to make a film about John Brown; although we can't say whether that's still something in the works. Although his was to be more of a reimagining of Brown's story, as only Tarantino could tell it.

And since the current 2 projects from Esposito and Giamatti are based on novels, don't be surprised if, with what seems to be a current interest in adapting Brown's story to the screen, James McBride's fictional tale, The Good Lord Bird - which literary critics seem to love, based on the handful of reviews I read this morning - is optioned by a production company or Hollywood studio, if it already hasn't been; Especially with this huge win at the National Book Awards last night, which only raises its profile, and likely interest in it, significantly.

Since he's worked with Spike Lee on two films in the last 5 years (Red Hook Summer, Miracle at St. Anna), and Spike really hasn't made his own slavery-set film yet, which I'm actually surprised by, maybe this could be the project that brings them back together.

Or maybe not...

I've ordered a copy for myself to read eventually. It's a new book, published in August. Has anyone read it yet? And if you have, thoughts?

Congratulations to Mr McBride on the award! 

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2 Comments

  • happybrowngirl | November 23, 2013 8:52 PMReply

    I am half a chapter in and the book is hilarious, awesome!!!!!

  • urbanauteur | November 23, 2013 3:34 PMReply

    I had read somewhere an interview James McBride gave, where he mention Spike tried to raise some fund$ for his Song Yet Sung novel, but it didn't pan out, along with a few others he champion-Harriet Tubman bio-pic, Huckleberry Finn and Nat Turner.

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