At a time when American politicians and media personalities speak glibly of patriotism and freedom, it’s easy to forget that very few people who dedicated themselves to advancing those causes have ever been particularly popular — at least before they’re dead. “Most folks never heard of John Brown,” The Good Lord Bird’s opening narration begins, introducing us to one such unpopular subject. “If they have, they know he was hung for being a traitor, stirring up all kinds of trouble, and starting the Civil War.” The new Showtime series, based on the James McBride novel of the same name, wants to fill in some of those gaps. Every episode begins the same, with these words on-screen: All of this is true. Most of it happened.
Much like the novel on which it’s based, The Good Lord Bird is an incredible tightrope act between historical fiction and absurdist dark comedy. The major beats of Brown’s biography are all there — his single-minded faith, his violent attacks on slave owners, his eventual execution by the state — but the space in between them is what is invented. The comedy, of course, comes in imagining what this man must have really been like. The John Brown we know from history texts was a deeply religious man whose fervor led him to dedicate his life to ending slavery. Like many significant men in American history, his story is recounted with a ponderousness akin to the scriptures he revered, with little semblance of what the movement he led must have been like. The Good Lord Bird gives us one possible answer: like a damn mess.
The show is during the final years of Brown’s life, and we meet the man through the eyes of protagonist Henry Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson). Henry is an enslaved boy who is violently freed by Brown and then promptly mistaken for a girl and nicknamed Onion. Henry isn’t safer with Brown, but he’s left with no other choice — a predicament further complicated by the fact that if Brown realizes he’s a boy, then he’ll make him fight. Through Onion, we get a front-row seat to the last years of Brown’s life, knowing that it ends in failed slave revolt and then, finally, in a noose.
As John Brown, Ethan Hawke delivers a portrait of a patriot we’ve never seen before. He plays Brown as a man of extraordinary conviction and faith in the message of equality reflected in both Scripture and the Constitution, which means he’s dissatisfied with anything less than direct, violent action. John Brown is a zealot, possessed of a devotion that’s downright reckless. He is also a man who hacked off the head of a slave owner with a machete, which is to say few agree with his methods, even if they do agree with his cause.
Other famous men in this story get similarly complex portraits. Frederick Douglass (played memorably by Daveed Diggs), for example, is every bit the moving orator we know from history. But he’s also a cad, using his rising stature to attract partners Black and white, and he’s particularly prickly when he feels his social status is not respected. Brown and Douglass meet in a standout episode, and each man is arrogant in their own way, beholden to his own particular ideology, despite having the same goal. The Good Lord Bird isn’t as cloying as Hamilton, another bit of historical fiction starring Diggs, but both do the vital work of rounding out the humanity of history’s giants by making them petty, boisterous, and disagreeable.
And it’s here that The Good Lord Bird succeeds. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that America has entered another moment of racial upheaval; The Good Lord Bird recontextualizes the fight for emancipation by asking us to closely regard the life of one of its most ardent white proponents. It’s a sly commentary on progress’s cost: believing the enslaved should be free wasn’t hard for Northern abolitionists. What was hard — and, at the time, perhaps even considered deranged — was doing something about it. To Brown, the limits of discourse and legal action had been reached. He understood that the system of slavery could not be reformed.
In this, The Good Lord Bird doubles as sly commentary on what has brought us to another historical reckoning. The bloody path John Brown cut from Kansas to Harpers Ferry made him a wanted and hated man, as much because of the murder he committed as because of the fact that he lived in America, a country built on systemic injustice. The series, like the novel, further complicates its depiction of Brown’s life by suggesting there’s a fundamental arrogance to Brown’s actions that complicated his cause. In the series, there is little room for the thoughts or concerns of the people he wanted to liberate. He thought they’d thank him (and the Lord) for it and join his army out of good sense — an assumption that led to the real-life Brown’s capture at the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, where he attempted to arm an army that did not show.
When the Civil War began, the Union Army would march to “John Brown’s Body,” a song that contextualized Brown’s life and death as another step in our nation’s eventual goal of a free and equitable society. It was a rallying cry to defeat the Confederacy. In The Good Lord Bird, we see him as his contemporaries might have: an unwashed militant who everyone he meets is defined against. A proper understanding of history, one that’s useful to us today, is one that places us firmly in the tension between these two points, that characterizes people and their actions beyond simply calling them “good” or “bad.”
In 2020, this is harder than ever. American government is in the grip of a party that embraces ethnonationalism and white supremacist rhetoric, enamored with a view of history that is alluring — that America is a noble and exceptional project in the free world. The reality, obviously, is more complex, especially to those Americans who are marginalized. It is a terrible and frightening thing, building a nation. John Brown knew that.
What he didn’t know was that his country was so systematically broken that what he thought of as justice could also be seen as madness. Or maybe, as The Good Lord Bird suggests, John Brown really was just mad.