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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

SHOWTIME's "Good Lord Bird": Is "All of This" True?

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. 

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