When I was in high school in Houston in the 1950s, we studied the Civil War. John Brown was portrayed in the American history textbook as a zealot and a terrorist.

I just read about a new film in which he is shown as a visionary far ahead of his times, a man who believed unconditionally in human equality.


Of the day following John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859 — now understood by scholars and schoolchildren alike to be one of the precipitating events of the Civil War — pioneering Black historian W.E.B. DuBois described a nation of doubters, uncertain of Brown’s legacy and hesitant to claim it. With the benefit of 50 years’ hindsight, though, DuBois himself had no such compunction.

“When a prophet like John Brown appears, how must we of the world receive him?” he asked in his 1909 biography of the antislavery crusader, combating Brown’s Jim Crow-era reputation as a bloodthirsty outlaw. “Only in time is truth revealed. Today at last we know: John Brown was right.”

Radical abolitionist and domestic terrorist, Confederate scoundrel and Union saint, Brown is among the most contested figures in American history, fated, perhaps, to be received as the world and the moment require. Which lends the earthy, slyly funny, utterly righteous portrait of Brown painted in Showtime’s “The Good Lord Bird,” based on James McBride’s raucous novel, its sense of urgency: We’ve rarely needed Brown the prophet more than we do now.

And in “The Good Lord Bird,” cocreated by Ethan Hawke and Mark Richard, Hawke’s Old Man Brown is neither the monster of Southern nightmares, nor the eccentric on the margins of Geraldine Brooks’ “March,” nor the martyr of Russell Banks’ “Cloudsplitter.” Here, as in DuBois’ analysis, he is our very own Cassandra, logic crystalline behind his cloudy eyes.

This is a film I want to see. I hope I get Showtime.