The defining moment of John Brown’s life came when he decided, relatively early, that the only solution to the institution of slavery in the United States—the only way to abolish it—was through violence. He has been painted in the intervening years by some (primarily southern historians, as Jacob Oller noted in his review) as a lunatic and a madman, and there’s no doubt that his passions ran deep, but on this count he was perfectly sane. He was also correct. But unlike most citizens of the time, he took his realization to the next step. Slavery so offended his sense of morality that if it could only be destroyed by violence, then he saw it as his mission to propagate that violence, and to stir his country to violent acts of its own. It’s why he fought (and murdered) the slave state forces in Bleeding Kansas, and it’s why he led the doomed raid on Harper’s Ferry (intending to start a slave rebellion), that led to his hanging. It would be too historically convenient to say that he set out to incite the Civil War, but in fact the audacity of his final act —which made him such a hero in the north and such a villain in the south—helped escalate tensions that did, actually, bring about the war of emancipation. In this sense, he fulfilled his mission with a clarity of purpose that few other American figures can claim.
In discussions of The Good Lord Bird, Showtime’s good-but-not-great series in which Ethan Hawke portrays the character of Brown in a narrative that fictionalizes a good deal of his story while adhering to broad biographical strokes, many critics have focused on the applicability of Brown’s story to modern racial justice. Understandably so; seemingly everything bad that happens in this country is a consequence of our original sin, and it’s impossible not to contrast the successful abolition of slavery with the racial disparities that have continued in American life ever since. But equally as interesting, to me, is Brown’s broader notion that certain problems just don’t have a non-violent solution. The thought is anathema to the worldview of many people who believe they live in a relatively stable democracy, but even in America we’re beginning to confront catastrophes like climate change that threaten to destroy our planet, but whose root causes seem intractable. Even now, major magazines and some activists are confronting the idea of whether a solution is possible without some level of violence, and it’s my guess that eco-terrorism will be an emerging story in the next decade, perpetrated by radicalized people who look with hopelessness at peaceful avenues of reform.
That’s the characteristic of John Brown that fascinates the most—he saw no path but a violent path, and then committed himself to the violence. To some, that’s fanaticism; to others it’s a rare case of a privileged person who didn’t need to engage in this particular battle doing so anyway because he had the courage of his convictions. Any portrayal of Brown, then, has to be judged on these merits—does it capture the singularity of vision?
With Ethan Hawke’s depiction, the answer is “for the most part, with a few caveats, yes.” If that sounds decidedly un-Brown-like in its equivocation, so be it. Hawke’s Brown, and the series at large, has a nagging predilection for comedy. While it serves to lighten the mood, it also creates a strange hybrid man out of Brown that is almost certainly ahistorical. Which is fine, since this isn’t a strict biography, but the problem comes when it turns Brown into a muttering incompetent who veers between absent-minded prattling and sudden bouts of righteous fury. The fury is great—Hawke’s eyes swim with holy fervor, and he lights up with all godly vengeance that infused Brown (and which gave him credibility, after Harper’s Ferry, when he tied his motivations to biblical passages in his famous last speech). In the heat of battle, you can see the vibrational intensity that would inflame a man to the extent that he could undertake that last, quixotic mission.
That’s the easy part, though, especially for an actor of Hawke’s gifts; the difficulty comes with everything else. While the writers showed the proper instincts in letting us see Brown through the eyes of Onion, a boy (dressed as a girl) who was present, Zelig-like, for all the important moments, you have to wonder if Brown perhaps should have been even more remote. Hawke clearly has strong ideas about Brown’s character, based in part on his reading of the 2013 novel on which the series is based, but this quote about making Brown “bearable” in Variety struck me as a little misguided:
“Part of the artistic community’s job is to shine a light into these dark places, to try to make shadows not so scary, to alleviate shame. And the great device to do that is humor because humor can be truthful but not hurtful.”
He’s right, in a general way. But specifically in The Good Lord Bird, the humor only serves to dilute. It’s harder to believe in the figure of John Brown when the trappings of a sitcom are laid upon him, when he becomes the bumbling dad whose sons roll their eyes (in real life, the sons were equally fanatical and did most of the killing in the Bleeding Kansas days), or the good-natured but self-absorbed goof who can’t tell a boy from a girl. These qualities have the effect of diminishing the character, and softening the punch of the intense moments. This may be more John Brown’s fault than Hawke’s, since it’s all but impossible to separate the man from the mission, so fully did he inhabit it. But it’s still an artistic choice, and not a great one if the ultimate goal is to convey the raw power of Brown’s belief. The comedy here can be strong, but when it touches Brown, it robs the whole drama of impact, and treads too close to depicting Brown as a fool with a few screws loose, which is the exact opposite of what Hawke and the writers wanted.
Was Brown spurred on by the rigor of his Christian morals, or by the chemicals in his brain going haywire? By accident, the sometimes-comedic depiction of Brown in The Good Lord Bird slips from certainty and offers up an answer that you would never have heard from the man himself: “We’re not really sure.”
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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