The New John Brown Series Is as Good as You’d Hoped

Ethan Hawke’s The Good Lord Bird is the thrilling cinematic depiction of radical abolitionist John Brown that we’ve been waiting for.

Ethan Hawke as John Brown in Showtime's The Good Lord Bird. (Kevin Lynch / Showtime)

The Good Lord Bird is a new seven-episode Showtime series set in the 1850s Border War of “Bleeding Kansas.” It’s about a teenage slave named Henry Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson) caught in the pre–Civil War cross fire of both official military and renegade proslavery and antislavery forces. Through his skeptical, young eyes, we study the wild-haired radical abolitionist John Brown, played by an unexpectedly excellent Ethan Hawke in the role of a lifetime.

The series seems to have been designed for me personally, so of course I love it — from the spaghetti Western–style animated opening credit sequence to the gospel music-filled score to every last spittle fleck flying out of John Brown’s mouth as he calls upon the might of the Lord to help him smite the slavers. But I’m not sure where that leaves the rest of you.

Are you obsessed with the Civil War? Do you love John Brown like family, and have you long been hoping that a movie or TV series would take on that looming, near-mythic figure and try to do him justice? Are you a huge fan of the American tall tale, made most famous by Mark Twain, and frequently drawn upon by the Coen brothers in films such as O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs? Do you know Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn almost too well?

Yes to all? Well, then, this show is for you, too.

How Henry Shackleford and John Brown come together and form a fraught relationship is the subject of the opening episode titled “Meet the Lord,” directed by Albert Hughes of the Hughes brothers (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents, From Hell, The Book of Eli). Brown is raging through Kansas as payback for the sacking of the antislavery settlement of Lawrence by proslavery settlers. He’s been on a tear, freeing slaves and fighting their masters as the head of his ragtag little army. After speaking his abolitionist views uncompromisingly at a rural barbershop, he gets into a gun battle with enraged proprietor Dutch Henry Sherman (David Morse). He liberates Henry Shackleford in these bloody circumstances, in which the boy’s father is also killed.

Brown also mishears both Henry’s gender and name, calling him “Henrietta,” as the boy notes nothing can change his mind or alter his beliefs once fixed. He puts Henry in his daughter’s dress, affectionately renames him Onion, and introduces him to a world of chaos. This includes a constant shifting of names. After offering a few different aliases to Henry, John Brown is asked, “How many names you got?” and answers, “How many do I need?”

But he roars out in a more expansive moment, renaming himself once again and reminding everyone how he fought against the proslavery raiders who laid waste to Osawatomie, Kansas: “I am Osawatomie John Brown. . . . and I’m here with the Lord’s blessing to free every colored person in the territory!”

Is it Brown’s cracked mental state, his piercing eyes, his religious mania, or his prescient wisdom about the evils of slavery that makes him so compelling to others? Even those who know his weaknesses best are unable to get out from under his spell. His son Owen (Beau Knapp), one of five sons enlisted in their father’s cause, is constantly shaking his head over Brown’s instability, impracticality, and exhausting religious zealotry that includes three-hour prayers before meals: “Pa, it’s a sin to waste the Lord’s time! He’s got other prayers to hear!”

But every time his followers are close to counting him out, Brown comes through with implacable courage and shining mental lucidity. When his sons have finally had enough and plan to leave the fight, Brown says (in a direct quote from the record of Brown’s life): “I have only a short time to live — only one death to die, and I will die fighting for this cause.”

We can credit not only the source material, James McBride’s National Book Award–winning novel, but also the writer-showrunner Mark Richard and Ethan Hawke, who executive produced and cowrote the first two episodes, for dealing with the question of Brown’s sanity up front, having it constantly raised and debated by a variety of characters. In America, it’s a debate we’ve been having for over a century and a half now.

In the immediate aftermath of the October 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Brown was “roundly vilified and decried as a violent madman.” The so-called Secret Six, wealthy Northern abolitionists who were privately funding him, publicly denounced him. (They get a scornful shout-out in the first episode of the series, having sent down some smug “fat-assed” backup troops who promptly get themselves killed.)

But then, while awaiting execution as a condemned man, Brown’s unexpectedly wise and stoic conduct turned him into a martyred saint for the Union, and sent soldiers off to war singing “John Brown’s Body,” which was later supplied with new lyrics to become the “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Brown’s unflappable bravery was so extraordinary, his indifference to the pain from his wounds so impressive, and his eloquence so remarkable in a series of jailhouse interviews, that he won millions of hearts with his ultimate self-sacrifice on the gallows. This is the John Brown championed by transcendentalist writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Brown, in the end, even won over the wary pacifist abolitionists who’d been publicly condemning his violent actions right up to the point of his capture.

Up through about 1900, Brown was generally thought to be sane, though depending on what side you were on, he was characterized as either a righteous crusader for justice or a vile degenerate traitor. If you consider the nineteenth-century standards of sanity, Brown was no great exception in most ways. Not when it came to the extremes of Old Testament religious fervor, or the dreadful familiarity with everyday violence and death that characterized ordinary lives, or the regular experience of what we might call altered mental states, through a variety of phenomena such as “brain fevers,” spiritual epiphanies, and the legal use of widely available opiates.

But in the twentieth century the dominant attitude toward Brown shifted. Now he was considered mentally ill, if not an outright raving maniac. Just check out Raymond Massey’s mad-eyed performance as Brown the psychotic villain of the highly inaccurate 1940 film Santa Fe Trail, which makes heroes of J. E. B. Stuart (Errol Flynn) and George Custer (Ronald Reagan) for putting down Brown’s insurrectionary activities.

In recent years, however, the pendulum of public opinion has swung back again toward the idea of Brown as sane and effective, no matter how badly he botched that raid on Harpers Ferry, and figures across the ideological spectrum now embrace him — some of them quite loathsome. Timothy McVeigh, for one, hoped to be perceived as a latter-day John Brown. Radical pro-life activists have also eerily claimed Brown as an inspiration.

The Good Lord Bird opts for a complex portrait, depicting John Brown as a man of many parts, some of them riotously funny, some of them quite moving, and all of them contradictory. Brown was, after all, a generally loving father who led most of his sons to their deaths. Brown sternly told his son Watson, when he was expiring in agony from gunshot wounds at Harpers Ferry and begging to be put out of his misery, to die stoically, “as becomes man.” Admittedly, Brown managed one of the ultimate stoic deaths himself.

The choice to approach Brown through Henry Shackleford’s point of view is smart and very much in the tradition of the episodic American tall-tale novel. In each case of the best-known novels in this genre — Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Little Big Man, and True Grit — an adolescent at the age of doubt and self-assertion is placed at the center as the narrator, the better to be able to see and satirize their society as a whole. Gone rogue from family due to adverse circumstances, these narrators come of age by being forced into hilarious and traumatic encounters with some of the wildest characters and biggest events of the day.

It’s important to note that these famous tales are all Southern and/or Western in their inclinations. It’s hard to conceive of Northeastern tall-tale narratives. They require a sense of expansiveness, a broad and contested and as yet undetermined terrain. They’re fitting locations for the adolescent protagonist in the act of self-determination. So it is with The Good Lord Bird’s Henry Shackleford.

By the end, the narrators of these tales all look back on their deeds in a state of hard-won maturity whose adventures and resulting insights have isolated them. Mattie Ross of True Grit and Jack Crabb of Little Big Man are both seared old loners when we first meet them. Huck Finn is still an adolescent when the novel begins, but already a veteran of many a battle in life, who knows he’s got to “light out” and seek freedom from his past and his culture. And young Henry Shackleford begins the series narrating in a voice of premature wisdom:

Most folks never heard of John Brown. If they have, they know he was hung for bein’ a traitor and stirring up all kinds of trouble and starting the Civil War. Some black folks hate him, thinkin’ he’s some bullshit white savior. . . . Me, I loved him.

How Henry comes to love such an unlikely figure is the question. In keeping with the best American tall tales, The Good Lord Bird promises to be a memorably wild, fast-paced, incident-packed journey full of riotous humor and angry insight. It’s already off to a fantastic start.