Daveed Diggs is holed up in a hotel room in New York, hoping for the future but thinking about the past. It’s election day in America. As the country decides its fate, the actor best-known for playing the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton is reflecting on a speech he’s made it his tradition to listen to each year on Independence Day. First heard in 1852, abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ ‘What, to the slave, is the Fourth of July?’ address is a barnstorming attack on the “revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy” of America, delivered by a man who had himself escaped a slave plantation.
“I think that speech is so important in terms of not forgetting the history of the country,” says Diggs, speaking over Zoom. “So much of it still scans as very true today, so getting to perform it was incredible.”
Diggs’ charismatic version of Douglass is in the middle of that fiery sermon when we meet him in The Good Lord Bird, a new historical drama premiering on Sky Atlantic this month. Based on James McBride’s award-winning 2013 novel, it tells the story of Onion, a young slave who tags along with a motley crew of abolitionist soldiers led by John Brown, a swivel-eyed man of God played with mouth-foaming intensity by Ethan Hawke. Think Robin Hood and his band of merry men, but instead of mugging off the Sheriff of Nottingham, they’re trying to provoke the civil war that will end slavery.
It’s an exhilarating ride, but also one Diggs says helped him understand a critical period of history he wasn’t taught much about in school. “I knew who John Brown was vaguely,” he says, “But I didn’t know all the little details about Brown, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. They’re real, and they’re wrapped up in this totally incredible story. Anything that brings to the forefront the American legacy of slavery is good. Not letting our foot off the throat of that institution is probably a good idea.”