Historic site manager says new Showtime series on John Brown works against his message to the public
Actor Ethan Hawke visited Lake Placid to prepare for his role as the abolitionist
LAKE PLACID — The manager at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site says the new limited series “The Good Lord Bird” on Showtime is sending the wrong message about 19th century abolitionist John Brown.
“I have to say, I don’t really think much of this series,” Site Manager Brendan Mills said Tuesday, Oct. 6, two days after the seven-part series debuted. “I think it kind of works against what I’ve been trying to teach people these last 19 years.”
The series — based on James McBride’s book of the same name — was co-created and co-produced by actor Ethan Hawke, who portrays John Brown. The series begins during Brown’s slave-freeing crusade in the Kansas Territory in the 1850s. It was a time known as Bleeding Kansas, when pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces clashed violently to decide whether Kansas would become a free state or a slave state. (It became a free state in 1861.) Brown and his “army” were in the thick of the fighting.
“Brown was not an insane man. He wasn’t this murderous maniac,” Mills said. “He was a sane man. He was dealing with an insane system (slavery).”
The story is told from the point of view of Henry “Onion” Shackleford, a 14-year-old fictional slave who is freed by Brown and joins his group. Brown believes Onion is a girl and gives him a dress to wear.
In Showtime’s press kit, it says the series “weaves a humorous, dramatic and historical tapestry of Antebellum America, spotlighting the complicated and ever-changing racial, religious and gender roles that make up the American identity.”
That “humorous” part is one of the issues Mills has with the series.
A Sept. 30 review by Verne Gay in Newsday, for example, giving it four out of five stars, calls it a “tragicomic farce.”
“Farce is inevitable, and farce is intended, to which you might ask: Too soon?” Gay writes. “Too soon to make fun of Brown who’s still a-mouldering in the grave, or ‘Bleeding Kansas,’ or slavery and the enslaved? McBride’s acclaimed novel made short work of those questions, and so does the TV adaptation. History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself as farce here — history is farce.”
But the life of John Brown is not a laughing matter, according to Mills.
“Would you treat ‘Schindler’s List’ as a farce and dress up a Jewish boy in a dress and make jokes about that? It’s serious subject matter. Slavery was a horrible institution,” Mills said.
To be fair, Mills did not watch the Oct. 4 debut of “The Good Lord Bird,” and he said he has no intention of watching the series. But he did watch a trailer, and that was enough for him to make a judgement.
“What I get from that, he’s always got guns in his hands and he seems like a crazed lunatic. That’s the stereotype,” Mills said. “Brown, most of his life, he was a farmer. He was a businessman. He was a family man. He was a neighbor. The violence of the slave system, which was built on violence, built on terror, that is what drove him to do what he did. … Once fighting calmed down in Kansas, he decided he couldn’t retire to this farm here in North Elba, that he had to spend the rest of his life trying to end slavery. And that’s what he did.”
Brown was born on May 9, 1900 in Torrington, Connecticut, the son of Owen and Ruth Mills Brown. The family moved to Hudson, Ohio, where John spent most of his childhood. This was a key stop along the Underground Railroad. He spent a chunk of his adult life as a “conductor” for the Underground Railroad, first in Massachusetts and then in New York.
He moved to the town of North Elba in 1850, where the settlement of Timbuctoo was created for free Black farmers by abolitionist Gerrit Smith.
It didn’t take long for Brown to make his mark on the local farm scene. In a report on the Essex County Fair for the Oct. 5, 1850 issue, the Essex County Republican noted John Brown’s Devon cattle.
“These most beautiful and noble animals … as a single entry, triumphantly bore away the palm. Essex county is deeply indebted to Mr. Brown.”
In 1855, Brown first went to Kansas, where some of his sons were living. They asked him to travel there, fearing attacks by pro-slavery settlers.
In May 1856, Brown and his army of anti-slavery settlers killed five pro-slavery settlers north of Pottawatomie Creek in Franklin County, Kansas. It was known as the Pottawatomie Massacre.
On Oct. 16, 1859, Brown and his followers raided Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now part of West Virginia), taking over the federal armory, arsenal and rifle factory. He was captured then hanged for treason on Dec. 2, 1859. His body was transported back to the North Elba farm, where he was buried on Dec. 8.
Ethan Hawke in Placid
To prepare for his role as John Brown, Hawke told “Fresh Air” host Dave Davies on NPR Monday, Oct. 5 that he visited Lake Placid with his wife. In his introduction, Davies called Brown “a grizzled, wild-eyed, pistol-packing, scripture-quoting crusader for justice.”
“Tell us about getting the voice,” Davies asked.
“You know, I’ve put a lot of thought into that,” Hawke said. “I drove up to Lake Placid, New York, where he is buried. It seemed like the right place to start. And I went to pick up the scent, as it were. I went to his house and walked those woods. And I wondered, ‘How does this guy talk?'”
Hawke told Davies that he didn’t want to telegraph Brown’s emotions.
“I thought John Brown should be feral,” Hawke said. “He should be like an animal, and you should not really know when he’s going to go gentle or when he’s going to go up. This is a person that didn’t play by society’s rules, so I just felt permission to leave it all in the field, so to speak.”
Mills remembers that visit. It was June 4, 2019. He even has a photo of them posing together.
“I talked to Ethan Hawke,” Mills said. “He was very nice. His wife was an extremely pleasant woman. … I gave him a good, long tour of the site and the buildings and everything, but it seemed to go in one ear and right out the other. But, of course, it’s the material he’s working from, which is the novel, ‘The Good Lord Bird.’ I guess if it garners more interest in Brown, I guess it’s a good thing.”