The radical abolitionist John Brown is best known for leading an ill-fated raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, as part of an effort to spark a revolt of enslaved people. Before that, he led a group of men in murderous skirmishes against pro-slavery forces in the Kansas Territory during the Bleeding Kansas crisis. He was a devout Christian but also firmly supported the use of violence to further the abolitionist cause.
Many hailed Brown as a hero at the time of his 1859 execution by hanging, and his life would inspire poems by Walt Whitman and Stephen Vincent Benét, among others. Later, some historians would characterize him as a confused, mentally ill killer, and his appearances in works of art dwindled as decades went by. James McBride’s 2013 novel, The Good Lord Bird, remedied this, presenting a complex depiction of Brown amid a larger story about the experience of enslaved people just before the Civil War. A new Showtime miniseries of the National Book Award–winning work, starring Ethan Hawke and Joshua Caleb Johnson, premieres on Oct. 4.
The book and miniseries both focus on fictional narrator Henry Shackleford, a 12-year-old enslaved boy in the Kansas Territory who joins Brown’s group of fighting men after Henry’s father is killed. Brown initially makes an error regarding Henry’s gender, and the anxious tween doesn’t correct him; as a result, he ends up wearing a dress and living as a girl, whom Brown nicknames “Little Onion,” for the next few years. During that time, he meets other, adult enslaved people, as well as famous figures, such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Later, he’s a key player in Brown’s plan for the Harper’s Ferry raid.
McBride, who’s an executive producer of the Showtime series, presents Brown in his book as eccentric, to be sure; for one, he’s devout to point of comedy—his rambling group prayers with his men (which include his sons) can last for hours on end—and his wild, shaggy appearance makes him stand out, particularly when he and Little Onion visit relatively sedate New England. His lack of practicality and his inability to put together solid plans of action often cause Little Onion and others to doubt him. Crucially, however, McBride does not portray Brown as insane—fanatical, yes, but always in control of his faculties. As a result, the author never gives readers the chance to simply discount Brown as a crackpot—and although some may disagree with Brown’s methods, it’s impossible to argue with the rightness of his antislavery purpose.
Hawke plays Brown in the miniseries, which he also co-wrote and co-executive-produced, and he does so with gusto, presenting him as a man of righteous anger and thunderstorm orations. For any other character, such a performance would be wildly excessive—but it works perfectly here, as it’s very easy to believe that the real-life Brown would take up as much space as Hawke does. After all, this was a man who could, by the mere force of his words, inspire strangers to give their lives for the antislavery cause. That’s no small power, and Hawke not only understands this, but also effectively shows how it worked—as many viewers are sure to find themselves moved by his undeniable passion.
It’s such an intense performance, though, that it’s easy to overlook the truly fine work of other actors. Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs, for example, presents a relatively restrained but no less compelling portrayal of Douglass as a brilliant, if somewhat vain, gentleman who’s friendly with Brown but doesn’t suffer foolishness; a dinner-table scene in which he takes exception to Brown’s assumptions about enslaved people is a showstopper. (However, another scene from the book, in which an inebriated Douglass expresses lascivious intentions toward Little Onion, is curiously soft-pedaled in the adaptation.)
Quentin Plair offers an understated but noteworthy turn as Douglass’ protégé, Emperor, a formerly enslaved man who later takes part in the Harper’s Ferry raid. (The character is based on the real-life Shields Green, who was the focus of his own biopic, Emperor, released in August.) And Johnson, as Little Onion, does an admirable job in a less showy but crucial role as a grounded narrator among such larger-than-life figures.
In the end, the miniseries, and the book on which it’s based, presents a nuanced portrait of a complicated man and his times—and an equally engaging exploration of when violence is justified. An 1861 song’s lyrics famously state that “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,” but the questions surrounding his response to injustice remain very much alive.
David Rapp is the senior Indie editor.