John Brown (1800 – 1859) is remembered today mostly for his attack on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. The attack ended with Brown’s arrest, conviction, and hanging.
Before Harper’s Ferry, though, John Brown was also involved in the troubles in Kansas. During the 1850s, pro-slavery southerners clashed with anti-slavery free soilers. The results were often bloody—hence the term, “Bleeding Kansas”. The violence in Kansas never really extinguished itself; it spilled into the larger violence of the U.S. Civil War.
While in Kansas, Brown carried out operations with his own small militia group. Brown was fueled by a mixture of abolitionist fervor, religious zeal, and (probably) mental illness. Stark egotism was also a factor. Brown occasionally freed slaves. But mostly he killed whites whom he deemed guilty of association with slavery—sometimes rightly, and sometimes wrongly.
John Brown was—-in some ways—not unlike the violent white progressives of modern times, who foist themselves on Black-dominated groups like Black Lives Matter, often for purposes of their own agendas and their own self-aggrandizement. For this reason alone, I was extremely skeptical of The Good Lord Bird, a historical miniseries about the latter days of John Brown. This is an election year, and I figured that The Good Lord Bird would be some kind of leftwing Hollywood agitprop.
Having watched the first two episodes, I am happily surprised. The series is actually quite good, and not overtly political.
The Good Lord Bird is told from the perspective of Henry Shackleford, a fictional escaped slave who joins Brown’s militia operations with mixed emotions. We get the sense that Shackleford just wants to get on with his life, but Brown is determined to draft him into a higher spiritual/political cause.
Ethan Hawke is cast as John Brown. Having read several biographies of the real John Brown, I don’t find Hawke completely convincing. I don’t fault Hawke for falling short here. John Brown would be an extremely difficult role for any actor.
John Brown, moreover, isn’t really the star of The Good Lord Bird. Despite the weightiness of this historical period, the miniseries is best described as a coming-of-age drama set against the backdrop of American history. Henry Shackleford (played by the young actor Joshua Caleb Johnson) is the real star of The Good Lord Bird.
In the second episode of the miniseries, Shackleford disguises himself as a young woman in order to make his way through pro-slavery territory with another escaped slave. The two are diverted to a town that is a staunch pro-slavery enclave. While there, Shackleford takes refuge in a brothel, where he teaches a worldly prostitute how to read, even as he develops an adolescent boy’s crush on her.
The Good Lord Bird is set in the 1850s. At this time, slavery was legal in much of the United States. Racial inequalities were taken for granted. What we now refer to as racial epithets and hate speech were then just common speech.
Where appropriate, The Good Lord Bird deals frankly with these shameful aspects of our history. What The Good Lord Bird does not do (so far, at least) is descend into racial guilt porn. The writers and producers of the miniseries assume that you already have a negative view of slavery.
Nor is this a hagiography of John Brown. The Good Lord Bird depicts Brown as the very conflicted moral figure that history reveals him to be. For example, one scene shows Brown executing an innocent Southern sympathizer and family man in cold blood. In another scene, Brown is shown blithely risking the lives of escaped slaves and white accomplices alike in an ill-conceived militia operation.
The Good Lord Bird also has a sense of humor about its subject matter. This is not needlessly edgy, inappropriate humor of the Quentin Tarantino variety, but rather the kind of humor that one would expect in a well-written coming-of-age adventure story.
If you like good storytelling set against a historical backdrop, you can’t go wrong with The Good Lord Bird. The miniseries is available on Showtime.