At a time when American politicians and media personalities are simply speaking about patriotism and freedom, it’s simple to neglect that only a few individuals who have devoted themselves to advancing these causes have ever been notably fashionable – a minimum of earlier than they die. “Most individuals have by no means heard of John Brown,” A chicken of a great grasp begins the introductory narration, introducing us to at least one such unpopular subject. “If they’re, they know he was hanged for being a traitor, he began all types of issues and began a civil battle.” The brand new Showtime sequence, based mostly on James McBride’s novel of the identical identify, desires to fill a few of these gaps. Every episode begins in the identical approach, with these phrases on the display: It is all true. Most of it occurred.
Very like the novel it’s based mostly on, Good lord chicken it’s an incredible rope between historic fiction and absurdist darkish comedy. All the foremost strokes of Brown’s biography are there – his one-minded religion, violent assaults on slave homeowners, his ultimate execution by the state – however the area between them is what’s fictional. The comedy, after all, is available in imagining what that man actually needed to be like. John Brown whom we all know from historic texts was a deeply spiritual man whose fervor led him to dedicate his life to ending slavery. Like many notable individuals in American historical past, his story is retold with a power akin to the writings he revered, with little resemblance to what the motion he led should have been. Good lord chicken it offers us one doable reply: like a rattling mess.
The present lasts for the final years of Brown’s life, and we meet the person by the eyes of the protagonist Henry Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson). Henry is an enslaved boy who’s forcibly launched by Brown after which instantly replaces him with a woman and the nickname Onion. Henry is not safer with Brown, however he has no different selection – the difficulty is additional difficult by the truth that if he realizes he is a boy, she’ll make him combat. By means of Onion we get a seat primarily till the final years of Brown’s life, understanding that it ends in a failed slave insurrection after which, lastly, a noose.
Like John Brown, Ethan Hawke brings a portrait of a patriot we’ve by no means seen earlier than. Brown performs a person of extraordinary conviction and religion in a message of equality that’s mirrored in each Scripture and the Structure, which means he’s dissatisfied with something lower than direct, violent motion. John Brown is a zealot, possessing a devotion that’s completely reckless. He’s additionally the person who reduce off the slave proprietor’s head with a machete, which is to say that few agree together with his strategies, even when they agree together with his goal.
Different well-known males on this story get comparable complicated portraits. Frederick Douglass (unforgettable performed by Daveed Diggs), for instance, is each cellular speaker we all know from historical past. However he’s additionally a man, who makes use of his progress to draw black-and-white companions, and is particularly astringent when he feels his social standing isn’t revered. Brown and Douglass meet in a rare episode, and every man is smug in his personal approach, adhering to his personal explicit ideology, regardless of having the identical purpose. Good lord chicken not as a lot enjoyable as Hamilton, one other piece of historic fiction starring Diggs, however each make a significant work of rounding out the humanity of historic giants by making them tiny, noisy and incoherent.
And right here it’s Good lord chicken succeeds. It’s inconceivable to disregard the truth that America has entered one other second of racial coups; Good lord chicken recontextualizes the battle for emancipation by asking us to fastidiously think about the lifetime of some of the ardent white advocates. This can be a tough touch upon the price of progress: believing slavery needs to be free was not troublesome for northern abolitionists. What was troublesome — and, on the time, even perhaps thought-about disturbed — was doing one thing about it. For Brown, the boundaries of discourse and authorized motion have been reached. He realized that the system of slavery couldn’t be reformed.
On this, Good lord chicken doubles the crafty commentary of what led us to a different historic account. The bloody journey that John Brown reduce from Kansas to Harpers Ferry made him a wished and hated man, as a lot due to the homicide he dedicated, as a lot as the truth that he lived in America, a rustic constructed on systemic injustice. The sequence, just like the novel, additional complicates the depiction of Brown’s life by suggesting that there’s a elementary conceitedness of Brown’s actions that has difficult his purpose. There’s little room within the sequence for the ideas or worries of the individuals he wished to launch. He thought she would thank him (and the Lord) for it and be a part of his military out of widespread sense – an assumption that led to Brown’s precise seize in federal armaments on Harpers Ferry, the place he tried to arm a military he didn’t present.
When the civil battle started, the Union Military marched to “The Physique of John Brown,” a tune that contextualized Brown’s life and loss of life as one other step towards our nation’s final purpose — a free and equal society. It was a name for a Accomplice gathering. IN Good lord chicken, we see him as his contemporaries may need him: an unwashed militant in opposition to whom everybody he meets is outlined. An accurate understanding of historical past, one that’s helpful to us at the moment, is one which places us firmly in pressure between these two factors, which characterize individuals and their actions, and never simply name them “good” or “dangerous”.
In 2020, that is more durable than ever. The American authorities is within the grip of a celebration that embraces ethnonationalism and white overriding rhetoric, in love with the view that historical past attracts – that America is a noble and noteworthy challenge within the free world. The fact is, clearly, extra complicated, particularly for these People who’re marginalized. It’s a horrible and horrifying factor, to construct a nation. John Brown knew that.
What he didn’t know was that his nation was so systematically damaged that what he thought-about justice might be seen as insanity. Or possibly, like Good lord chicken means that John Brown was actually simply loopy.