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A Dark and Funny Look At The Man Who Fought Our Nation’s Greatest Sin

The Good Lord Bird and John Brown

smithsonianmag.org

Ethan Hawke has been one of the best actors in American cinema for more than a quarter of a century. Yet somehow, he never seems to get his due. Perhaps that’s because he’s always so quiet, whether being the calm American in Richard Linklater’s incredible Before Sunrise trilogy or the father who fails his son but still earns his love in the remarkable Boyhood. Even when he’s cast in big budget action movies like Assault on Precinct 13, The Three Musketeers or Training Day, he still seems to be the voice of reason. Which is why it’s remarkable to see him turn everything up to eleven playing John Brown in Showtime’s brilliant new limited series The Good Lord Bird.

Brown was one of the most divisive figures in what was America’s biggest crisis: slavery. During the 1850s, he led his family through Kansas, freeing enslaved blacks, killing the men who enslaved them and all who supported them. His raid on Harper’s Ferry is one of the cruxes on which our nation stands, and his execution was one of the causes of the Civil War. This is one of the darkest subjects to tell about, which is perhaps the reason the writer of the book James McBride chose to tell it as a comedy.

Advertisements for this series describe Hawke’s portrayal of Brown as ‘.44 Caliber Abolitionist’. They leave out something that is obvious from the moment we meet him: Brown is crazy, ‘nuttier than a squirrel turd’. Hawke is determined to eradicate slavery in Kansas when we meet him in the first episode, but it’s clear that he is at least partially round the bend, taking inanimate objects as signs from God, praying to the almighty before going into battle, screaming at anyone who he thinks gets in his way. It seems impossible that Brown could’ve fought as a soldier, much less led an army, but he goes in with such relish and survives such long odds that part of you does believe that God is looking out for him.

McBride understood that to try and explain Brown has been done by history. So he has it looked from the perspective of one of the slaves he ‘freed’. Henry is mistaken for a girl by Brown the second he meets him, but Henry has learned very quickly that you never disagree with a white man, no matter how insane he is. So he goes along, takes the name Onion, and wears a dress — something that he is fully willing to admit keeps him alive a lot longer.

Hawke is exceptional as Brown, showing him as someone righteous in his beliefs even though he is clearly delusional. But just as good is newcomer Joshua Caleb Johnson as Onion, who realizes very easily that the difference between being black in the north and black in the south barely matters a stitch to the black person.

You may think that I have described one of the darkest limited series in a very dark year. But it’s also very funny. That John Brown managed to succeed seems remarkable even to the men who fought under him, and much of the battles take place are so disorganized that you wonder how anyone could fight in such madness. Even the slaves themselves seem more detached from what’s going on, as the men claim they are fighting for them are clearly lost in their own ideas. They seem to actually think less of abolitionists than their masters. At least, they are forthright about why their fighting.

McBride and Hawke make it very clear that “This is a true story. Most of it actually happened” and unlike Fargo, which I reviewed last week, this time they’re being honest. We met Jeb Stuart in the first episode, and we know that Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas are due to make appearances in this story. Whether historians will truly appreciate a version of history as crazy as this, we can’t ignore the fact that it is just as relevant today.

My score: 4.5 stars.

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David B Morris

David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.

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