“The Good Lord Bird” is a work of historical fiction that takes a satirical approach when portraying John Brown in both James McBride’s novel and Ethan Hawke’s portrayal of John Brown in the limited series on Showtime.

This is not an issue in and of itself, as John Brown is a public historical figure. The issue with both James McBride’s novel and Ethan Hawke’s portrayal of John Brown in “The Good Lord Bird” is that some individuals will not take either the novel or the limited Showtime series as a historical fiction/satire, and consider “The Good Lord Bird” a documentary that represents historical fact rather than historical fiction. Some might utilize James McBride’s and Ethan Hawke’s portrayal of John Brown as the historically correct image of John Brown, which is problematic in that James McBride’s and Ethan Hawke’s portrayal of John Brown is certainly satirical and entertaining, but not historically accurate.

John Brown scholars who have spent years explaining to the public that Raymond Massey’s portrayal of John Brown as an unhinged lunatic with no impulse control in the movie “Santa Fe Trail” and “Seven Angry Men” was inaccurate will now have to add explaining that James McBride’s and Ethan Hawke’s portrayal of John Brown as an unhinged lunatic with no impulse control is historically inaccurate.

It’s a reality that is already coming to fore at the John Brown Museum State Historic Site, as staff at the museum have found it necessary to disabuse members of the public of the mistaken notion that James McBride’s and Ethan Hawke’s portrayal of John Brown as an insane, maniacal individual is not historically accurate.

In reality, John Brown was the diametric opposite, a sane, intelligent man who spent most of his time dissuading young hot-headed militant abolitionists from engaging in rash, emotionally charged violence against proslavery advocates during the guerilla war over the status of slavery in Kansas Territory.

John Brown was an intelligent, completely sane individual whose abolitionist beliefs motivated him to act to ensure that enslaved African-Americans would be freed from slavery and be equals under the law and as individuals.

James McBride’s and Ethan Hawke’s portrayal of John Brown as insane obscures and works to negate Brown’s contribution to the progress of civil rights in the United States, and presents another barrier that historians have to overcome to educate the public about John Brown’s role in shaping American history, as some viewers of “The Good Lord Bird” will view the work as historical fact rather than historical fiction.

John Brown was not a perfect person, but he was not the lunatic as presented by either Raymond Massey in “Santa Fe Trail” or James McBride and Ethan Hawke in either the novel or the Showtime limited series “The Good Lord Bird.”

Grady Atwater is site administrator of the John Brown Museum and State Historic Site.

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