ETHAN HAWKE’S RAGE-FILLED croak as abolitionist John Brown in The Good Lord Bird is biblically awesome. It’s not just deeper and more gravelly than his everyday speaking voice; it’s a geyser of fury that seems to erupt from his innards like demonic ectoplasm escaping the body of a possessed soul in a horror movie. When Brown launches into a sermon aimed at slavery-defending sinners, his hands grip the butts of his six-shooters, and his face and body knot up and twist like a hangman’s rope. His veins throb. Spittle flies. His eye color seems to darken. None of this is a special effect. It’s Hawke feeling Brown feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit and sounding like old Nick Nolte trying to get through an angry monologue while being fed into a wood chipper.
Of course, Brown is also, to quote one of the characters, “nuttier than a squirrel turd.” That’s not a diagnosis or evidence of Brown being wrong on the merits. It’s a personal observation that happens to be accurate. But to its credit, the seven-part Showtime miniseries about Brown and his followers never reduces him to a medical binary. It treats his unhinging from white America’s norms as a break from moral abnormality, and it leaves room for the possibility that, as more than one account has suggested, John Brown simply woke up one morning hearing the voice of God exhorting him to free the slaves—even if it meant killing any man or woman who supported slavery—perhaps because the entire country had been mad for centuries, and terrorizing it was the only way to bring it to its senses. Brown led a makeshift army into a guerrilla war for America’s soul (in this telling, the racially mixed group includes his own adult sons, numerous freed slaves, a Native American, and a Jew), and by the time he raided Harpers Ferry in 1859, the entire country had figured out that a peaceful resolution was impossible.
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