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Radicalism in Mainstream Entertainment

Ethan Hawke as John Brown in The Good Lord Bird

I’ve been thinking lately about how pop culture depicts political radicals. One trigger for these thoughts has been the conversation around Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago Seven. I haven’t gotten around to watching it yet, partly because I don’t know much about the events it’s chronicling, and I’m not sure I trust Sorkin to give me my first introduction to them. But people who do know about the period have been talking a lot about the way that Sorkin transforms radical figures into institutionalists, who just want the American system to live up to its promise, where in reality they were deeply skeptical of that system, rooting for and even working towards its downfall. Rewriting these characters’ convictions feels quintessentially Sorkinian—for better and worse, his writing has always been suffused with a deep awe towards American democracy, and his heroes are usually people who work within the system. One almost wonders what drew Sorkin to the Chicago Seven story, since his writing has, in the past, expressed open contempt towards activists and protesters.

But then, Sorkin is hardly alone in taking that view, and the spin he puts on the Chicago Seven and their trial might almost be seen as benevolent when you compare it to how Hollywood usually approaches radicals. This is an industry, after all, that still thinks ecoterrorists are a thing. An industry that seems terrified of any complex political situation. The recently-released fourth season premiere of The Crown, for example, depicts the assassination of Louis Mountbatten by the IRA, an attack in which two children and an eighty-three-year-old woman were also killed, but shies so far away from discussing the Northern Irish conflict or the IRA’s justifications for resorting to violence, that it treats the entire incident merely as a trigger for Prince Charles finally getting serious about marrying Lady Di. I grew up with villains who were acknowledged to be right on the merits—about ecological devastation, or racism, or economic inequality—but who went about responding to those evils in The Wrong Way, whose tactics Went Too Far. Looking around, I’m not sure much has changed—there is still precious little mainstream entertainment that tries to face radicalism head-on, to acknowledge its necessity as well as the places where its effectiveness ceases.

One recent exception is FX’s miniseries The Good Lord Bird, based on the 2013 National Book Award-winning novel of the same name by James McBride, which concluded its seven-episode run earlier this week. The novel, told from the point of view of a young enslaved boy in mid-1850s Kansas, follows the final years in the life of the abolitionist John Brown. When young Henry Shackleford’s father is accidentally killed in a dispute between Brown and those who want Kansas to become a slave state, he is “liberated” and adopted into Brown’s ragtag army. One problem: during the affray, Brown mishears Henry’s name as Henrietta, and takes him for a girl. Henry, terrified and uncertain, goes along with the lie (it is, he explains to us, never a good idea for a black person to correct a white person), becoming the army’s mascot and dubbed “Little Onion”. He ends up following Brown all the way to his ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry.

I hadn’t read McBride’s novel before watching the show, but I found a copy in a used bookstore last week, and read it over the weekend. Reading the book, it became clear that McBride’s project is in large part a homage to Mark Twain, perhaps specifically to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Like Twain’s writing, The Good Lord Bird is characterized by a sort of cynical humanism. No one in it is purely heroic or villainous, and everyone in it falls short of how they see themselves and how they’d like to be seen. The slaves freed by Brown find him—and the freedom he offers—dubious and untrustworthy, often scheming to escape him and return to their masters. Those masters are cruel more because they accept the logic of slavery than for any specific act of abuse—Henry often tells us that they’re too busy and run ragged themselves to dedicate much time to abusing their slaves. The abolitionist sympathizers Brown preaches to in the north thrill to his tales of righteous violence, but aren’t willing to do anything themselves beyond putting a few dollars in a collection plate. Most of all, Brown himself is a furiously self-contradictory figure, full of righteous zeal that often doesn’t leave space for mundane reality. As Henry tells us

Whatever he believed, he believed. It didn’t matter to him whether it was really true or not. He just changed the truth till it fit him. He was a real white man.

Perhaps because the Twain-ish tone is hard to convey on screen, and perhaps because 2020 is not 2013, but the producers of The Good Lord Bird have tweaked the novel’s tone and emphasis in subtle but significant ways. The characters and story are the same, as is the mixture of sardonic humor and righteous political conviction. But the show feels, at its heart, more reverent towards Brown. If the novel felt like the coming of age story of a boy who has been swept along with John Brown, the show feels like John Brown’s story, told through the eyes of a young boy. And that story is intended to convince us of Brown’s rightness, even as it acknowledges the many failures of his project.

As both a novel and a miniseries, The Good Lord Bird is good but not great. The story drags a little in the middle. The balancing act between humor and horror doesn’t always come off. The series, in particular, tries to give more space to black characters, both historical—Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman both make appearances—and invented, but the effect of this is often to make you feel that there’s a more interesting story happening just off screen (it doesn’t help that the show follows the book’s lead in castigating Douglass for not supporting the Harpers Ferry raid, finally concluding that he is “a speechifying parlor man”). The pleasures of the show are often found in its parts rather than its whole—if you’re like me, for example, you will reach the moment where the show introduces its Douglass, played by Daveed Diggs, and realize that you have never wanted another actor/historical figure combo more in your entire life.

Most of all, what makes The Good Lord Bird worth watching is Ethan Hawke’s towering, fire-breathing, deranged performance as John Brown. Hawke plays Brown like Moses, trapped in the moment where he discovers the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf, full of rage and sorrow that won’t be abated until the obscenity before his eyes is done away with. And yet this Brown is also horribly, and at times comically, misguided. He has no diplomacy whatsoever. People are either on his side (which is to say, the side of righteousness) or they’re damned unless they see the error of their ways. And when people are on his side, he assumes that they agree with him completely and are ready to follow him in any foolish, dangerous, ill-conceived scheme he comes up with. His plan for the raid on Harpers Ferry is a catalogue of folly, riddled with assumptions, founded on blind faith, and finally, contingent for its success on divine intervention.

I have no idea how accurate a depiction this is of the real Brown, nor do I really care. Unlike Erik, I don’t think it’s the job of historical fiction to teach us history—that’s what books and documentaries and even blog posts are for. Fiction is only ever about the moment in which it was written, and when a work of historical fiction deviates from real history, our question should be what its aim is in doing so. The Good Lord Bird, I think, wants us to feel exasperated with Brown. It wants us to find him faintly ridiculous—it’s notable, for example, that almost every black person Henry meets immediately realizes that he is a boy in a dress, while Brown (and the white people who follow him, whose perception of reality is guided by his) misses every sign of the obvious. And then it wants us to realize that he is nevertheless one hundred percent, indisputably, undeniably right.

There’s a scene near the beginning of the series that encapsulates the reaction the show keeps trying to draw out from us in its depiction of Brown. The previous episode included vicious, murderous attacks by Brown’s army on pro-slavers and their fellow travelers in Kansas, the capture and release of two of his sons, and multiple back and forths between Brown, pro-slavery militas, and Federal troops in the region. The entire experience has left Henry terrified, and Brown’s followers frustrated. Brown himself looks like a zealot and a dangerous fanatic, never more so than when he and his men encounter the officer who had previously captured his sons, and who, with a cool temper and gentlemanly reserve, offers to let Brown turn himself in. Brown, instead, starts railing about the inhumanity of slavery and the necessity of ending it once and for all. The officer listens with an increasingly strained, polite smile. And just at the point where it becomes clear how forbearing and patient he thinks he’s being, we also realize that he’s a monster. He knows that Brown is right about slavery. He knows that he is an instrument of an unjust system. But he doesn’t care enough to do anything about it, which makes him a pillar of society, and Brown a criminal.

If John Brown is crazy, as several people over the course of the series claim, and as Hawke’s performance strongly suggests, it is the kind of madness that comes from looking at the world and knowing, with absolutely clarity, that it is hideously, unbearably wrong. And that most people around you recognize that wrongness, but are too invested in the system, or too busy with their own lives, to do anything more than pay lip service to the idea that it must be stopped. Brown’s plan to spark a slave rebellion, armed with the guns stolen from Harpers Ferry, may be a fantasy, but by the time he hatches it we have been so steeped in the hypocrisy of the people he meets, whether abolitionists or slavers, that we can’t help but dream it along with him.

Both the novel and the miniseries try to offer some consolation after the failure of the raid, the death of most of Brown’s compatriots, and his own execution, by arguing that his actions were the spark that eventually led to the Civil War. As far as I know, that’s a commonly accepted interpretation. It also feels like an unnecessary addendum to what the series achieves with its depiction of Brown, the way it challenges us to face up to his necessary intransigence in the face of evil, and our own complicity with that evil. The polite, gentlemanly officer who tries to secure Brown’s surrender at the beginning of the series shows up again at its end, when he and his men are holed up in the armory with no hope of escape. Once again, he tries to make Brown see reason, and once again, he stands for everyone who says to the radical that he can’t win. Those people are usually right, but so is the radical when he refuses to back down. The Good Lord Bird is a rare piece of popular entertainment that places the radical front and center, without apologizing for his flaws or sugarcoating his failures, reminding us how necessary he is.

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