Monday, October 19, 2020
Tuesday, October 13, 2020
This pretty much says it all. Those who wish to argue from the "higher art" position in defense of the lunatic portrayal of John Brown by Ethan Hawke in the current SHOWTIME series, "The Good Lord Bird," would do well to consider this letter from Marty Brown, a direct descendent of the Abolitionist, which appears in the October 19th edition of The New Yorker.
Sunday, October 11, 2020
The story of John Brown's (1800–59) ill-fated raid on the Federal armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) is well known. However, the lives of his Black raiders are far less known than that of Brown and his white coconspirators. DeCaro (church history, Alliance Theological Seminary;
Freedom's Dawn) seeks to rescue the story of one Black raider, "Emperor" Shields Green from history's shadows. Any attempt to reconstruct his life can only be done provisionally. He was born near Charleston, SC, although his birth date and whether he was born free or enslaved is unknown. Much more is known about Green's life during his time with Brown, the raid, and his subsequent trial and execution. DeCaro does an excellent job interrogating the sources, and attempting to find the real Green among the racist stereotypes and language found in both Southern and Northern newspapers. What emerges is a portrait of a man willing to die if it meant an end to slavery. VERDICT: DeCaro has assembled fragments of Green's life from the historical record in a judicious and thoughtful biography. Readers interested in antebellum, African American, and Civil War history will enjoy this brief biography. —Chad E. Statler, Westlake Porter P.L., Westlake, Oh., in Library Journal reviews, October 2020.
Friday, October 02, 2020
I first met Larry Lawrence on May 1, 1999, when I made my first trip to the John Brown Farm, now a state historic site near Lake Placid, New York. I became reacquainted with him after I left the pastorate in Jersey City and relocated into Manhattan with my wife Michele in 2003. At some point afterward, I don't remember when exactly, I saw Larry again, and over the next fifteen years, I had the pleasure of meeting with him for breakfast or lunch to talk about John Brown, the struggle for justice, and anything related to current events and politics. Frequently, we also met with our dear friend, the actor Norman Marshall, the portrayer of John Brown in the play, "John Brown, Trumpet of Freedom."
I spent a good many accumulated hours with Larry, I must admit that I did not know that his actual name was Reuben Dennis Lawrence III. I knew him only as "Larry," and I suppose that's all that matters, because that was the man I knew as one of the most strident defenders of and advocates for John Brown's legacy. In 1989, Larry founded the The John Brown Society, which was an organization reflecting a left political commitment. Early on, Larry awarded gold and silver medals to African American activists and others who contributed to the legacy of the struggle for justice in cultural terms. Larry was one of the most historically knowledgeable and politically astute scholars that I have known, and he could easily have been a university professor given his vast knowledge of history and the politics of the left.
I miss Larry Lawrence, as will his family, associates, and the community of John Brown admirers who got to know him. He will not be replaced. We will just move on and acknowledge the large space that he left behind, reflecting the many years of his indefatigable devotion to the struggle for justice and the legacy of a man that Larry liked to call "Mr. John Brown." Larry liked the words of the nineteenth century abolitionist orator, Wendell Phillips, who eulogized John Brown in 1859. I quote them here as a double entendre, in honor of John Brown the abolitionist, and my friend Larry Lawrence:
"He sleeps in the blessings of the
crushed and the poor, and men believe
more firmly in virtue now that
such a man has lived."
Monday, August 31, 2020
|Dayo Okeniyi as "Emperor" Shields Green|
Unfortunately, the month of August has been quite distracting, and even in making this entry, nearly a month since the last one, I must write in haste.
When I heard of the production of "Emperor" in 2018, I was prompted to do some research and write an article about Shields Green, one of Brown's Harper's Ferry raiders. After a couple of days, however, I had about one hundred pages, particularly because I begun to notice things that I had never noticed before--issues like Green's status at birth, his alleged real name being Esau Brown, the time of his escape, and even his age. When Clara Platter, my thoughtful editor at NYU Press, heard about my Shields Green work, she encouraged me to expand it into a book. And so The Untold Story of Shields Green was born, and will be officially released in October (although it is possible to purchase advanced copies now--click here).
As far as the "Emperor" movie is concerned (click here for trailer), I did not expect it to be historically consistent, although the writers took such liberties with the story that it surprised me. Particularly, the movie has a very different ending that what actually happened to Green. Since there is so little information about Emperor, of course, the movie takes advantage of this fact by presenting a story line that is almost purely fictional and only connects with the truth with Green's meeting with John Brown and Frederick Douglass at Chambersburg prior to the Harper's Ferry raid. The misrepresentation of the Harper's Ferry raid is almost purely fictional and quite misleading, and the writers missed the opportunity to appreciate how Emperor represented a martyr for the antislavery cause, instead opting to have him escape in a blaze of glory like an action hero. So be it.
If I have one real objection to "Emperor" it is that the screenplay writers place words in the mouth of Frederick Douglass (played by Harry Lennix) that I do not believe the Orator would have ever spoken, not in 1859, nor later in his life either. In the scene at Chambersburg, where Emperor must choose whether he will follow John Brown or not, Douglass essentially accuses John Brown of exploiting white privilege in recruiting black men. This is, in fact, a very contemporary interpretation, and seems to reflect the need to impute a kind of racism to Brown after the fact than is called for by the black witnesses of those who knew him. It was Brown's assumption that black people were underrated for their courage and determination to fight for their freedom, and so he sought to recruit them for his cause. Were he subjecting them to something that he was not willing to undertake for himself and his own sons, then perhaps the charge would have some weight. But Brown put his own life on the line, as did his sons Oliver, Watson, and Owen, and three of the four died as a result. Douglass himself never made such a charge in anything he wrote or said on the record, and it was a kind of cheap shot for the screenplay writers to include the words.
At any rate, I would not discourage you from watching "Emperor." Despite its largely fictional storyline, both Shields Green and John Brown are at least presented as men of dignity and intent. In contrast to the upcoming "Good Lord Bird" screen adaptation by Ethan Hawke on SHOWTIME, John Brown (portrayed by veteran actor, James Cromwell) in "Emperor" doesn't look crazy. Likewise, Dayo Okeniyi's Shields Green is a serious freedom fighter, and I believe this is precisely true of the real Emperor. Indeed, all the actors are excellent and it is good entertainment as such. Still, it's not a history lesson as much as it is a legend--something lying just between Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" and Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation."
Sunday, August 02, 2020
|Rob Kenner's 2000 documentary, |
"Holy War," is perhaps the worst
documentary on John Brown,
was written by Ken Chowder
Wednesday, July 22, 2020
For some time now we have known about the television series, "The Good Lord Bird," based upon the James McBride novel of the same name, and it was anticipated that it might be released some time ago. However, we now learn that the series has been once again rescheduled to air in October on SHOWTIME. In May, SHOWTIME posted the official trailer for “The Good Lord Bird” on YouTube and it appears to be everything we feared it would be.
Once more, it seems, Hollywood will serve up another mad John Brown, the only difference being that in this cultural installment, Brown is a lovable, crazy, and over-the-top good guy, a man that is doing the right thing despite being a quixotic hero and a religious fanatic. In the unfortunate film, "Santa Fe Trail" (1940), Brown was portrayed as a crazy man, but the heroes in that film were future proslavery rebels like Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart. In "The Good Lord Bird," Brown is on the right side of history, even if he is a caricature of a likable lunatic who cannot tell the difference between a girl and a boy.
Given what we’ve seen in the past, it appears that John Brown's cultural image is not going to escape this unscathed. True, he has never been loved by the whole nation; but that's not really the point. What concerns me is that the core perspective on Brown, which apparently is conveyed quite seamlessly from McBride's novel to Hawke’s film, is a kind of nose thumbed to the historical narrative. Instead of history, then, McBride and Hawke want to give us a comic, laughable, approach to the story.
When McBride's novel came out in 2013, he gave a particularly insightful interview for NPR's Boston affiliate, WBUR. In his interview, McBride described his novel as "caricature and satire" with exaggerated characters. "It’s supposed to be a funny book," he said.
Fine. But then he made it quite clear that he was almost standing in defiance of history:
I hate books that tell me what I should know and tell me how to feel. . . . I wanted to kind of thrust John Brown into the modern day legendary status like Jesse James without writing a book that was very depressing, and that this is what you should know, here, ‘take your medicine,’ I just don’t like those kinds of books, so I wanted to write something that was really interesting and funny.
To be fair, McBride gets some points because at least he respects Brown's sincere religiosity, and even admitted that his novel doesn't capture the abolitionist's "seriousness of purpose in terms of his deeply felt belief that slavery was morally wrong."
The problem, however, is that despite his intention of writing a "funny" book, in the end he still wants to teach us history, and this is what bothers me about both McBride's book and the movie cloned from it by Ethan Hawke. McBride concluded that despite the fact that he wrote a satire that grossly exaggerates Brown, in the end he expressed hope that The Good Lord Bird would be "an effective way of opening up some of these issues for readers to make decisions for themselves about whether John Brown did the right thing or did not do the right thing." Ethan Hawke insinuated the same thing in a recent interview with Jimmy Fallon in which he said: "I have been trying to put this show together. It's huge, it has seven parts, it's hysterically weird and funny and I have a feeling, I hope it means something to people.” But what would it mean besides conveying a perspective of John Brown that will shape people’s historical understanding?
So, on one hand, McBride and Hawke seemingly want to cut John Brown loose from the serious cords of the historical record, and on the other hand they want to empower the reader/viewer "to make decisions for themselves" about John Brown’s historical meaning. Following McBride, who hates being told by scholars what to believe about Brown, Hawke apparently has reduced him to a caricature, the "44 caliber abolitionist," declaring him "nuttier than squirrel turd."
|In the SHOWTIME trailer, Frederick Douglass waves off|
John Brown, calling him a "lunatic" under his breath
This kind of thinking is what Neil Postman warned us about years ago in Amusing Ourselves to Death. It is the mentality of a television- and entertainment-based culture where too many people don't want to be bothered with history unless it is reduced to blood-splattered drama or comedic spoofs on figures like John Brown and Frederick Douglass—men who really should be the serious study of this society, particularly at a time when we have a president in the White House who is somewhat reminiscent of the president who occupied the oval office at the time of John Brown's raid. McBride and Hawke are artists, and artists can always appeal to their freedom of expression. But whether they want to admit it or not, they are providing a warped sense of history and calling it thoughtful and instructive—and they will get away with it in a society where lots of people want entertainment to be their teacher.
For the record, I know for a fact that two of John Brown's direct descendants are not at all pleased with the coming broadcast of SHOWTIME's "Good Lord Bird." I can also attest that the larger John Brown community of scholars, musicians, actors, activists, and grassroots researchers and caretakers of local history in many communities associated with John Brown, are also quite displeased with what is anticipated in SHOWTIME’s “Good Lord Bird.” Beyond these, a good many more of Brown's admirers are not going to be happy about having this important episode in the history of the struggle for justice reduced to a shoot-em up sitcom, courtesy of James McBride and Ethan Hawke.
I hope we can get past “The Good Lord Bird” quickly after it airs this fall, and that other films yet to be produced will provide a more positive and historically fair presentation of Old Brown in the twenty-first century. Indeed, we may yet see a thoughtful, smart, and entertaining film about John Brown come to the screen--that is, the Good Lord willing.