"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

MARTIN, QUENTIN, and JOHN: Should Filmmakers Martin Scorcese and Quentin Tarantino do John Brown movies?

A couple of years ago the word was out that Martin Scorsese had purchased the rights to make Cloudsplitter, the award-winning novel about John Brown by Russell Banks, into a movie. At some point it was reported that Raoul Peck, who directed the HBO bio-pic on the great Patrice Lamumba, was going to be working with Scorsese to produce his John Brown film. Since then, apparently, that project has not moved forward.

Frankly, the idea of Martin Scorsese doing a film about John Brown raised great concern in serious JB circles. Would Martin reduce the John Brown story to a sensational blood-fest like Gangs of New York? We have been resting uneasily about this possibility for a while now, but as of last week we have another reason for contemplation and concern.

On April 5, 2007, Quentin Tarantino was interviewed with fellow filmmaker Richard Rodriguez on the popular PBS program, The Charlie Rose Show. Toward the end of the program, Rose asked Tarantino about his future film ideas and--to our shock--he declared his desire to do a film about our man Brown. Here is an excerpted transcript from that interview:

QT: I would one of these days love to do the John Brown story, he's one of my biggest heroes of all time; and I'd actually like to play John Brown because I think I kind of look like him a little bit. But I'm actually thinking that may be the last movie I'll ever make--I'll be 59 or 60, I'll look the right age, I'll be the right age. And so, that's like an Unforgiven thing--

CR: Why is he such a hero?

QT: Because he pretty much ended slavery all by himself. And like all great patriots, was tried for treason [laughter]. I mean he's the only white man that's ever earned a spot on black history calendars, alright, and there looking you in the eye. Nobody saw slavery the way he saw it, and "if we have to start killing people to stop this then they're going to know what time it is." I just love him. He's just my favorite American.

To his credit, of course, Tarantino expresses a very positive view of Brown, something that we desire in any filmmaker who takes on the John Brown story. Hollywood has long produced films about Brown (or including him) that always made him look like a madman and villain. If Tarantino sees Brown as a hero, perhaps we will finally have a popular conception of John Brown promoted--one which does not conform to the older, biased, negative images that have prevailed throughout the 20th century. Admittedly, Tarantino is not a historian, so his inaccurate remarks about Brown may be forgiven; but if he portrays Brown both as a caring human and humanitarian, we might finally get closer to the John Brown who lived.

On the other hand, Tarantino's films are controversial for their violence and vulgarity, and in some respects it seems unfortunate that he would take up the John Brown story when his portrayed values seem so remote from the biblical values for which Brown lived and died. Of course there is fighting and violence in Brown's story; but our hope is that this violence is contextualized and explained, and not simply processed in a Kill Bill or Grindhouse manner of sensationalism.

We live in a society where artistic freedom has become the sacrosanct religious tenet that excuses all manner of vulgarity, profanity, and depravity expressed in the name of art. The artist's right to produce perversion and garbage in the name of artistic freedom is held higher than the rights of religious people to express their beliefs in the public square. Obviously, no one can tell Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese NOT to make John Brown movies. Nor can anyone tell them HOW to make their movies. However we certainly hope that these filmmakers will try to understand John Brown the man who lived--not only his willingness to use violence if necessary, but also his deeply religious and God-centered world view, his strong family roots, his great personal piety, and his deep hatred of injustice.


mav_ian said...

Several of Tarantino's characters have experienced renewed faith, which saves their lives, or the lives of others.
As a director, he uses violence to elicit a response from the audience.

Christopher said...

Let's hope that if Martin does take on John Brown, that it is more Kundun than Goodfellas.

Peter Sando said...

I've anticipated the making of "Cloudsplitter" for years now. I suspect that the 9/11 effect and the so called "war on terror" may have scared the entertainment execs away from this potentially controversial subject. Hopefully, the mood will change soon, and we can have a great American novel about a great American hero come to the silver screen.

The latest is that Raoul Peck awaits a screenplay.

historiantorand said...

Slavery was unconstitutional, and John Brown was performing the "rescue" function, tantamount to a 'Private Attorney General.' For references, see http://medicolegal.tripod.com/slaveryillegal.htm

Noah said...

If any modern director could do Brown's story justice, I think it would be Mel Gibson. I could see him playing the title role, too. He's about the right age, and I've seen pictures of him with a monster beard. Gibson's been involved in a number of projects (both as actor and director) that offer powerful ruminations on violence. They are graphic films, but they are purposeful in their brutality. I think Gibson could also understand Brown's religious convictions better than Scorsese or Tarantino.