“I’m nonetheless in restoration from the president of the US not condemning white supremacy,” Ethan Hawke stated the morning after the primary Biden-Trump debate. “That’s a simple factor to sentence.”
For Hawke, disavowing white supremacy was not only a matter of accountable management or just the best factor any American citizen ought to do. It was the defining ideology of John Brown, the white abolitionist the actor is presently enjoying in Showtime’s “The Good Lord Chook.” Hawke stated Brown was probably the most difficult, rewarding and politically pressing character he had performed in his 35-year performing profession.
“It’s like attending to be King Lear, however even higher,” he stated in a current telephone interview. “It’s enjoying a King Lear that hasn’t actually been performed.”
Hawke additionally created, with Mark Richard, the seven-part mini-series, which is predicated on the 2013 Nationwide E book Award novel of the identical title by the Black author James McBride.
Half satire, half historic fiction, each variations are advised from the point-of-view of the fictional character Henry Shackleford, who introduces himself after telling us that Brown rescued him from slavery as a boy. Mistaking him for an adolescent woman, Brown calls him Henrietta or, extra usually, by the nickname Onion, and so they journey collectively all through the US and Canada on Brown’s antislavery campaign, culminating in a raid on a navy arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Va. (now a part of West Virginia) on Oct. 16, 1859.
For McBride, the story of John Brown formed his childhood. “I keep in mind my older brothers speaking about John Brown making an attempt to start out some sort of provisional authorities,” McBride stated. His church nonetheless sang “John Brown’s Physique,” a nineteenth century marching track popularized by Black Union regiments through the Civil Warfare and sung in Emancipation Day festivities and later tailored by skilled choral teams of the period, just like the Fisk Jubilee Singers. (The creator finally felt snug with two white males adapting his guide partly as a result of “Mark was a Southerner, and he actually understood Southern issues,” he told The New York Times Magazine. “He understands the familiarity between whites and Blacks within the South.”)
Hawke, alternatively, spent his early years in Texas “listening to he was a nut,” he stated of Brown.
It’s a typical divergence. These variations in a collective reminiscence, through which John Brown seems both as a martyr who willingly sacrificed himself and his household to finish slavery or as a madman who violently murdered his fellow white Individuals, have historically been divided alongside racial strains.
Like McBride, I used to be raised to imagine Brown was not only a hero however an exception: a uncommon white abolitionist who not solely believed that African-Individuals shouldn’t be enslaved but additionally that they had been his equal.
That is the model of Brown that has been depicted by a few of America’s most acclaimed Black artists, like W.E.B. DuBois in a 1909 biography and the painter Jacob Lawrence in “The Legend of John Brown,” his sequence of twenty-two display prints from 1941. One of the vital pressing such creative works appeared in 1931, when the author Langston Hughes printed “October the Sixteenth,” a solemn poem that each recounted Brown’s foiled assault and likewise urged his fellow African-Individuals, now “a few years free” and a number of generations out of slavery, “to recall John Brown.”
Just a few years later, Hollywood started cementing Brown’s picture as an uncontrollable maniac. Within the 1940 movie “Santa Fe Trail,” primarily based on the biography of the Accomplice officer J.E.B Stuart, the actor Raymond Massey performed Brown as wild-eyed, irrational and impulsive. In his essay “Black Folks’s Ally, White Folks’s Bogeyman,” the historian Louis A. DeCaro Jr. famous that upon the film’s launch, considered one of Brown’s grandchildren unsuccessfully tried to sue Warner Brothers for “vilifying misrepresentation.”
Unusually, 15 years later, Massey performed Brown once more, a bit softened and solely barely extra sympathetic, within the film, “Seven Indignant Males.” Within the 1971 comedy western “Pores and skin Sport,” a chest-length-beard-wearing John Brown seems so crazed that any positive aspects to be made when he disrupts a stay slave public sale are undermined by the following chaos that he produces within the city.
Hawke ready for his function by reading the letters Brown wrote from jail within the week earlier than his execution. “They’re not the scratches of a lunatic,” Hawke stated. “They’re the writings of an individual with a trigger, any person who has one thing to die for, and any person who’s not confused that we’re all constituted of the identical creator.”
With a purpose to externalize Brown’s personal emotional actuality and character progress, Hawke centered on the beard, which Brown initially grew as a disguise however which artists usually painting as his defining feature.
“I received obsessive about the beard as a result of I knew that iconography of that Noah-esque beard,” Hawke stated. “So I got here up with this concept that I’d begin being clear shaven after which simply develop the beard all through. I hope to indicate he’s turning into John Brown, and that he’s not completed after we meet him.”
Hawke’s personal fascination with John Brown started in 2015 whereas capturing on set in Louisiana for Antoine Fuqua’s “Magnificent Seven.” Whereas there, a cameraman instructed that Hawke learn “The Good Lord Chook” and that he ought to in the future contemplate enjoying Brown. After studying it, Hawke grew to become an evangelist for the novel.
“I shared that guide with all people,” he stated. “It’s so painful to speak about our previous on this nation that we simply don’t like doing it — we need to transfer on.”
“However I assumed that McBride pulled off a magic trick, which is that he advised the story about slavery,” Hawke continued, “with a lot love, and a lot wit, a lot silliness, human stupidity and human folly.”
A part of what makes the story compelling can also be McBride’s irreverent depiction of icons just like the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, performed within the sequence by Daveed Diggs (“Hamilton”). The famend orator, who in real-life posed for at the least 160 pictures and was perhaps the most photographed American of his time, is offered as a picture obsessed Black Dandy who lives with each his Black spouse, Anna, and his white mistress, Helen. Not since Jewell Parker Rhodes’s 2002 novel, “Douglass’ Ladies” has the messiness of Douglass’s home life been so cheekily depicted.
“We had enjoyable with the Frederick Douglass character,” McBride stated. “We don’t imply any disrespect to him and to the various hundreds of historians who revere him after which the thousands and thousands of people that revere his reminiscence. However his life was rife for caricature.”
“He’s thought of virtually godlike by way of what he has executed for the African-American and American neighborhood,” McBride continued. “However what concerning the man who gave his life and whose one act modified the course of American historical past? If Harpers Ferry hadn’t occurred, there’s a very good argument to be made that the Civil Warfare would have been pushed again 10 or 15 or 20 years.”
Brown’s raid, in fact, didn’t find yourself being the slave-rebellion-igniting spark that he envisioned. After briefly taking the armory, he and his 21 males had been overwhelmed and 10 of them, Black and white, had been killed. (Sixteen individuals had been killed in all.) Two of Brown’s sons had been among the many useless, and the person himself was arrested, tried and publicly hanged. In “The Good Lord Chook,” Henry is ready to reveal his true self in addition to specific his everlasting debt to Brown, proper earlier than the outdated man’s execution.
At the moment, an unassuming stone obelisk stands on the web site of Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry to commemorate the stand he took. However, as a substitute of providing a picture of Brown, its facade is clean, making it attainable for individuals to undertaking onto it their very own interpretation of him and the completely different hopes and fears he represents for various individuals and races. However the lack of images additionally makes it far simpler for us to overlook Brown the precise man — and to a sure diploma, the parable.
Hawke challenged himself to erect a special monument to Brown’s life. Not one that’s stoic or static, however somewhat a shifting picture that aimed to current Brown as unbridled in his pursuit of justice for all.
In his 2005 edited assortment of essays “The Afterlife of John Brown,” Eldrid Herrington, a professor of English, wrote, “John Brown’s physique revives every time the US shames itself, when the physique politic bears wounds, when it imprisons residents with out trial, or prosecutes an unjust struggle in an unjust method.” In different phrases, John Brown reappears at peak moments of peril as a warning, and to assist us discover a means via it.
Initially, Showtime deliberate to debut “The Good Lord Chook” in February however ended up pushing it again first to August, after which October, without specifying why.
I believe it didn’t premiere in August out of concern for the way its depiction of violent dissent would land throughout a time of social unrest. However provided that this previous summer time witnessed extra white Americans participating in racial justice protests than ever earlier than in American historical past, its arrival now makes it an much more pressing, extra inspiring — and as Hawke hopes, extra indispensable — mannequin of interracial activism and antiracist organizing.
“He wasn’t liberating Black America,” Hawke stated. “He was a Christian, and he didn’t see Black America as dwelling in sin — white America was.”
“His actual mission was to get up white Individuals,” he added. “To what they had been doing, what they had been taking part in.”
Native New Yorker. Travel addict. Hardcore thinker. Analyst. Pop culture fanatic. I live in Queens with my wife Linda and our dog Clemenza.