SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the series finale of “The Good Lord Bird” on Showtime.
John Brown’s (Ethan Hawke) journey may have come to a violent end, but his mission will live on in the young man he inspired, Henry aka Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson).
The series finale of Showtime’s “The Good Lord Bird,” the seven-part adaptation of James McBride’s 2013 novel of the same name that looked at abolitionist John Brown’s movement through the eyes of a young Black boy who John Brown first mistakenly thought was a girl, ended with Henry riding off on his own after John Brown had been killed. That image, coupled with John Brown’s final words of America being a “beautiful” country were filled with both weight and hope for Hawke, who also executive produced the series.
“I find it incredibly moving,” Hawke tells Variety of John Brown’s last words. “This is a government of the people, by the people, for the people; all of us created equal; it’s our right to pursue happiness. We’ve all been charged with that and [we see] how much it falls short and there’s something very beautiful about John Brown focusing his energy on what a beautiful country it is as his country hangs him. It’s a punch to the solar plexus.”
Born a white man at a time when slavery was legal afforded John Brown privileges of which many of the other characters within “The Good Lord Bird” could only dream. But the sense of morality John Brown developed, be it from the spirituality he preached or the experiences he had or a combination of the two, told him to fight for the rights of his fellow men and women, and he took up the cause of freeing slaves, going so far as to lead a raid on Harpers Ferry, with plans to take the newly-liberated people across the border to Canada. The event was dramatized in “The Good Lord Bird” for one of the first times on-screen.
“Why do we have 1,000 movies about the Alamo or every damn battle in the history of the world but nobody wants to act out this? Why don’t they want to teach about John Brown? I discovered it in playing it: talking about race in this country is really, really scary and often times it’s easier if you’re not a person of color not to talk about it,” Hawke says.
Through Henry’s relationship with John Brown, though, Hawke believes McBride was able to turn a really dark tale into something “bearable” for the general audience.
“Part of the artistic community’s job is to shine a light into these dark places, to try to make shadows not so scary, to alleviate shame. And the great device to do that is humor because humor can be truthful but not hurtful,” he explains. “I think I’ve learned more about race in America from Redd Foxx, Chris Rock and Richard Pryor than I have from any teacher. And that paves the way for you to understand what other people are talking about — and then you’re ready for James Baldwin, you’re ready for Toni Morrison, you’re ready for Alice Walker.”
Additionally, by the end of the story, Hawke says John Brown “completely believes in Onion.” And for Hawke as an actor, that on-screen relationship gave him “one of my favorite scenes I’ve ever played in my entire life” when, in the finale, Onion visits John Brown in his prison cell. The moment, Hawke says, is “very, very powerful” because it’s the first time John Brown sees Onion for who he really is. “In the book it blew me away and it was an honor to play it.”
Researching letters the real Brown wrote from his prison cell, as well as historical documents and accounts from witnesses to his hanging, including Stonewall Jackson and John Wilkes Booth, Hawke feels there was a sense of “grace and peace with which John Brown sat” at the time of his death. “He seemed extremely tranquil, as if he understood his mission,” he says. “We used a real John Brown quote [in the finale] where he says, ‘I’ll do more for the cause in those precious last seconds than I’ve done with my whole life.’ He hoped that by his hanging he might incite more change than he might do by living.”
But before “The Good Lord Bird” came to end, it posed the question of whether John Brown failed in his mission. After all, he wasn’t able to successfully let some of the hostages out of the engine house without his sons being shot and killed, he didn’t get out of Harpers Ferry with his army, and he was executed by hanging. In the show, it is Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs) who narrates the answer that no, John Brown did not fail because he gave his life for a righteous cause. “He did at least begin the war that ended slavery,” he said. But he also left behind a legacy that, if properly told to future generations, would inspire systemic change.
Of course, the problem is that when John Brown’s story is told in schools — IF John Brown’s story is told in schools — he is often painted as an outsider.
“I’ve been working on this project for four years and a lot of people think they should know who John Brown is, but 90% of the people I talk to have no idea; they think he might be an English poet,” Hawke says. “I was taught he was just a lunatic. I don’t think I knew what the raid at Harper’s Ferry was for, [just that] some lunatic took over; I didn’t know it was for social justice. I didn’t know that Harriet Tubman had helped him raise the money or that Frederick Douglass came down, personally, to tell him he wasn’t going to come, and gave him money to help him. We aren’t really taught that. To teach it, you have to teach a lot of other painful things that a lot of people would want to just move on from. Unfortunately our desire to move on has caused us to stay still because if you don’t look at it intensely, you don’t know what you’re taking about.”
“I think [the real Brown would] be heartbroken to know that in 2020 some of these conversations are still the same. I think he’d be in utter shock. I think he believed that after the Civil War we would have righted this,” he continues. “There needs to be a consciousness shift. When I read ‘The Good Lord Bird,’ I thought, ‘This makes it really fun to have conversations that are otherwise extremely difficult to have.’ And I think it’s more important to have the conversation than to worry about whether you say everything right.”