History, Research, and Current Themes

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

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Monday, August 31, 2020

Some Thoughts on the Release of the "Emperor" Movie

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.

What was personally interesting for me about the movie is that the fictional account concludes with Green's grown son, in the late nineteenth century, submitting a manuscript to a publisher about his father's life.  In fact, Shields Green is the least known and perhaps most misrepresented of Brown's raiders.  We do not even have a daguerreotype photograph of him, and historians themselves have conveyed questionable notions about him because no scholar has seriously taken on his story until now.  In fact, to the contrary of the movie, it is not Emperor's son who writes about him for posterity.  Rather, over a hundred-and-sixty years after his death, it was I who wrote, or tried to write, his story. I am honored to have done so, although I have made it clear in the book that I do not believe my work is either ultimate or definitive. There may be yet more to learn about this mysterious figure in the story of John Brown.

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

Retro: Has Chowder Changed His Mind on Brown? Reflections on his "Father of American Terrorism"

Twenty years ago, in early 2000, PBS aired a documentary by Rob Kenner entitled, "John Brown's Holy War." It has been as many years since I viewed it, although even then, relatively on the front end of my work on Brown, I found "Holy War" highly problematic. I consider it the worst documentary ever made on John Brown and certainly I would never recommend it for use in the classroom.  

About the same time that the documentary was aired in 2000, its writer, whose professional name is Ken Chowder (I understand this is not his real name, but I will not publish his real name for the sake of propriety) published a piece in American Heritage entitled, "The Father of American Terrorism." This is a deeply flawed and unstudied treatment of Brown that purports some sort of objective stance between extremes, although in reality it is subjective, misrepresentative, and untrustworthy. 

Rob Kenner's 2000 documentary,
"Holy War," is perhaps the worst
documentary on John Brown,
was written by Ken Chowder

With all respect to Mr. Chowder, his article is twenty years old, and since its publication he has enjoyed a very fruitful and interesting career as a writer and filmmaker, and has explored a good many themes and received numerous awards. On the PBS page for his documentary, "Frederick Law Olmstead: Designing America," Chowder is described as having scripted over twenty-five documentary films, and as being the author of three novels, with articles published in Smithsonian, Audubon, Travel & Leisure, The New York Times Sophisticated Traveler, Modern Maturity, The New York Times, Geo, The [London] Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Geographical Magazine, and even Reader’s Digest. His website likewise lists numerous awards and artistic residences. He is a talented and accomplished man, and I salute him with all sincerity.

Ken Chowder (PBS image)

On a side note, too, I realize that some writers may have a cynical and checkered view of Brown and still appreciate him. For instance, I heartily disagree with the opinions of Brown that I have previously heard directly from the mouths of the late historian Tony Horwitz and novelist Russell Banks, but there is no doubt that their work at some level reflects an appreciation of the "Old Man."  Given that it has been twenty years since Chowder published his detrimental piece in American Heritage, I should give him the benefit of the doubt, as I would want to be given to me over some of the opinions I have expressed in younger days.  For instance, reading Chowder's 2000 article, it is interesting to see this on his Twitter account, written seventeen years later: "Currently reminiscing about my idol John Brown. . . ."

Not knowing Chowder, I'm not sure what to make of this, except that perhaps he changed his mind over the past twenty years after doing further reading and study. 

Nevertheless, his "Father of American Terrorism" article (like Rob Kenner's documentary that Chowder also wrote) is still accessible and sadly continues to reinforce the worst, least informed anti-Brown bigotries that yet prevail, especially among many whites in the United States. The problems with Chowder's article are extensive, but frankly I do not have the patience or the time to dissect this piece in great detail as I might have done in 2000. Suffice it to say that Chowder exploits themes like Brown's business failings, the Pottawatomie incident of 1856, and the Harper's Ferry raid of 1859 to suggest insanity and terrorism. While he quotes reasonable historians within the article, he prefers the opinions of fiction authors like Bruce Olds and Russell Banks. At best, Chowder is reductive and simplistic to a fault, such as his tendency to cast Brown's entire business life as failure and to suggest that somehow his life as a failure and a "nobody" drove him to extremes in Kansas and Virginia.  Overall, his thesis is that Brown's legacy gets spun to the right and to the left, but that Chowder himself is presenting some kind of balanced or objective treatment.  To the contrary, his view of Brown lacks biographical foundation, relies more on historical cliches, and leads to the worst tendencies and unstudied conclusions.  

Indeed, Chowder's "Father of American Terrorism" itself reflects a peculiar perspective, a kind of summing up of the great hackneyed narrative of John Brown that prevailed in the twentieth century, further inflamed by the tragic events prior to "9/11," when domestic terrorism had begun to rear its ugly head in the 1990s. By referring to Brown as a proto-terrorist, Chowder revealed his lack of historical understanding: after all white society had "fathered" terrorism long before in their attacks upon native people and enslaved Africans. By identifying Brown as some kind of terrorist progenitor, Chowder is catering to the presumptions of white privilege. And by privileging the worst and least studied opinions about John Brown, and by feigning his own objectivity, he revealed his own biases and lack of study.

I hope that an older and wiser Ken Chowder has moved beyond the nonsense that he furnished in his 2000 article. Still, it is unfortunate that his "Father of American Terrorism" continues to haunt and mislead society as an online resource.  It is a work that will finally be remembered, not as a useful article , but as a sample of the unstudied bias and bigotry that largely informed the popular narrative of John Brown in the twentieth century.