So, since I do get Showtime as part of a package streaming deal, I figured I should try to watch some stuff there from time to time. Why not start with this historic drama of a mini-series about the life of abolitionist John Brown?
Besides, I heard good things about this one.
Quite frankly, if this first episode is anything to go by, I can look forward to a good mini-series. Told from the point of view of one Henry Shackleford, a rescued slave, we see John Brown from the eyes of a contemporary African American who may or may not have much time for ol’ John Brown.
That is somewhat nailed down when ol’ John Brown assumes Henry is really a Henrietta and gives him a dress to wear. He’s also quickly nicknamed “Onion” because ol’ John Brown offered Henry a lucky onion, a rather disgusting old thing Henry assumed was for eating. It wasn’t. Brown is a bit superstitious on top of everything else, so he quickly adjusts to Onion eating his onion and takes it as a sign not to hold onto worldly things and proceeds to give Onion all of his good luck charms.
Ol’ John Brown had a lot of them.
As it is, Brown is a true believer, but Onion, like the other Black folks in the story so far, is a bit more skeptical. Onion notes that Brown’s assumption that Onion is a girl and Brown’s absolute conviction that of course Onion is a girl to say nothing of Brown’s hours-long stream of consciousness prayer sessions show a man supremely confident in his knowledge without actually being knowledgeable, something Onion thinks is the whitest white man trait there is.
It helps that Ethan Hawke plays Brown as a near madman, frothing at the mouth with all his crooked yellow teeth and deep, deep blue eyes. This Brown wins fights in Bleeding Kansas based mostly on his reputation alone, scaring the crap out of his opponents when they realize who he is and keeping himself alive the whole time. He’s a man who will kill another for the crime of being a minor accomplice to a wealthy slaveholder and sees no harm in breaking a promise he made to surrender himself to one J.E.B. Stuart in exchange for two of his sons because it is perfectly acceptable to break your word to anyone who is pro-slavery. Onion learns that fleeing John Brown isn’t all that difficult, either, but somehow he finds himself back in Brown’s camp before too long and Brown doesn’t seem to mind one way or the other.
Onion’s narration actually lends the story a good bit of humor, particularly as white people seem to assume he a girl like Brown does while other Blacks see him as the teenage boy that he is. If anything, the story is highlighting effectively what a complex and complicated figure John Brown was. He’s fighting for the right cause, but he has no problem committing acts of violence wherever he goes. He seems to be a madman, one that even some of his sons seem to recognize might not be all there, but he’s still a compelling figure that’s hard to ignore or escape. He’s a man famous for his acts of violence, and they don’t seem to be exaggerations. Plus, Hawke’s own onscreen charisma really helps in a character like this.
The episode ends with one of Brown’s son, the simple-minded Frederick, being shot to death by another man while he and Onion are out hunting. Onion is genuinely upset by Frederick’s death, and another of Brown’s sons decides he’s had enough of fighting (Brown appears to have four or five adult sons, so there are more where these two came from), but as for Brown, well, he can’t stand slavery and will keep fighting, but he won’t be going after Frederick’s killer because despite knowing full well who did it, revenge isn’t his thing.
You know, I think I am going to like this.