“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known/ When I was young and dreamed of glory/ You have no control/ Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?”– Chris Jackson (George Washington) in Hamilton
When I started this blog, I wrote that I would not attempt to make these posts a history lesson. I love history, being a historian, and talking about history. While teaching American history is my profession and passion, I want this blog to mix that with all the other topics I appreciate. Still, there are times, like today, when I use my knowledge of history, not to teach a lesson but to shine attention on my addiction to movies and television. Allow me, as I put on my historian hat, which I like to imagine resembles the one worn by Denzel Washington in Glory or Daveed Diggs in The Good Lord Bird, and discuss my emotional reaction to cinematic historical drama.
During times like these, when history seems distant, distorted, and dismissed, I often look to cinema to help remind me of what inspires me. History has always been something that interested me. The other day, I watched Hamilton for the first time and felt emotions that I had not felt since the pandemic began. Teaching using ZOOM has left me disappointed, even while recognizing this format’s necessity and how lucky I am to do what I love. But, while I understand those facts, I have felt empty. Watching the filmed performance of the epic Broadway play on Disney + helped remind me, even if slightly, of my love of history. I believe that cinema can offer a powerful emotional trigger that can bring history into the present. So, join me as I reconsider this viewing experience alongside some of the best cinematic moments, for me, that repeatedly stirs up my passion for history.
A Visual Representation of History
“Most folks don’t know about John Brown. If they have, all they know is he was hung for being a traitor and stirring up all kinds of troubles for starting the Civil War.”– Joshua Caleb Johnson (Onion) in The Good Lord Bird
Sure, I am a historian and professor, but I love seeing how historical events are shaped, interpreted, and twisted by Hollywood. I don’t care that events are often distorted, as long as those doing it, film producers and show creators, take a unique position and have a narrative backed up by a novel or historical text. The visual concept helps to spark interest in discovering more about the subject. While not the entire story, the cinematic expression helps to inspire a rediscovery of sometimes forgotten parts of history, like John Brown in The Good Lord Bird. As Ethan Hawke said in an interview with Variety on November 7, 2020, “why do we have 1,000 movies about the Alamo or every damn battle in the history of the world but nobody wants to act out this? Why don’t they want to teach about John Brown?” I applaud Hawke’s analysis and decision to zoom in on cinematically unexplored visual topics with beautiful techniques, somewhat resembling a Quentin Tarantino artistry. But he is not alone, even if his subject is long overdue for cinematic stardom.
Masterpieces of filmmaking like 12 Years A Slave, Gettysburg, Schindler’s List, Amistad, JFK, Dunkirk, Last of the Mohicans, Selma, All the Presidents Men, Born on the 4th of July, and Platoon, or epic exaggerations like Braveheart, Inglorious Basterds, Master and Commander, Gladiator, Spartacus, Gangs of New York, and 300, or over the top fictionalized histories like Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, Black Sails, The Man in the High Castle – all use history effectively, but for different reasons and, clearly, in diverse ways. Seeing historical events, both constructed and loosely based, establish valuable visual points of reference for those disconnected from historical concepts. Even as a historian, I enjoy how cinema designs these images, which link to the past. Even films that borrow broadly from history, with little interest in accuracy, offer powerful emotional visuals.
Why this topic and why now? Next week is the inauguration, today the House of Representatives impeaches this American President for a second time, so I am kind of emotional about American history, especially in the wake of last week’s tragic attack on the U.S. Capitol. Another reason is that I recently finished The Good Lord Bird, and it impacted me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the show, the subject, and Ethan Hawke’s performance. That is the type of feeling I desire when I watch a miniseries based on a historical topic. If I am crying or distraught after a miniseries or film concludes, I am not disappointed. I want to connect to the medium, the visual performance, those who give life to historical topics. Without further delay, let’s explore our first cinematic series, “Osawatomie” John Brown and Ethan Hawke’s series, The Good Lord Bird.
The Good Lord Bird (2020)
“I’ve been called crazy before, but I know there will be no friendship with a slave holding man, until he is soundly beaten holds himself accountable and asks for forgiveness. Then, we can discuss friendship.”– Ethan Hawke (Brown) in The Good Lord Bird
A few weeks ago, my brother Jeff told me that he watched The Good Lord Bird’s first episode. It is a brilliant miniseries about John Brown, his quest to abolish slavery, and his ultimately failed 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. I have mentioned this show in a previous post, but my brother’s interest in this topic closely aligned with my expertise. Once I knew he was interested in the Civil War, specifically John Brown, I had to provide him more information. Like any good brother/historian, I bought him a book on the subject, not just any book.
When I learned that Showtime had created and produced a show about John Brown, a topic that had been dormant was reestablished. As I mentioned in my post, A Brief Hawaii Moment, my mentor Dr. Robert McGlone wrote what I consider an essential book on the life and objectives of abolitionist John Brown. While my studies were front and center during my years in Hawaii, we often spoke of his research, especially Brown’s legacy. Like many writers and historians, he admired his subject, although he remained at arm’s length, both by time and reflection. Those conversations centered around his thoughts on Brown’s mental stability, family upbringing, and the details of this profoundly crucial historical figure. I thought I knew who Brown was, but McGlone taught me who he indeed was and why he is vital to Civil War history. Recently, I pondered what McGlone might think of the show, Hawke’s performance, and the novel that inspired it. After watching the show’s epic finale, he would have been impressed.
When Jeff expressed interest in learning more about Brown after his brief introduction from The Good Lord Bird, and hearing the song “John Brown’s Body,” while watching The Free State of Jones, I knew I had the right book for him. So, I bought him McGlone’s book. As you might imagine, I was nervous about getting his thoughts on a book that means so much to me. A few days later, my brother text messaged me, while roughly 50 pages into the book, with “Loving the book…Paints a clear picture of family life and struggles in the early 1800s. I’m now convinced that John Brown did not lose his mind!!” With that text message, I breathed a sigh of relief, I paid forward McGlone’s legacy, and Jeff accepted his analysis of John Brown. Once I completed my viewing of The Good Lord Bird, Brown was not only a historical martyr, but a POP! Culture sensation.
The Good Lord Bird is an epic adventure made better by the incredible performance of Ethan Hawke. He deserves an Emmy and Golden Globe for his portrayal of abolitionist “Old” John Brown. Even the opening credits, artistically impressive with the 1960 song “Come on Children, Let’s Sing,” written by Harold Eugene Smith and performed by Mahalia Jackson, was an excellent addition that emphasizes that the show will be unlike anything you have seen before. Based on the National Book Award-winning novel, of the same name, by James McBride, adapted by Mark Richard and created by Ethan Hawke, The Good Lord Bird stays true to its wicked awesome tagline, “All of this is true. Most of it happened.” It was thought-provoking to observe Brown’s movements up to the famous raid in Harpers’ Ferry, which, as Herman Melville wrote in his poem “The Portent,” acted as the “meteor of the war.” The viewer does not see these movements through Brown. You see them through a fictional enslaved male youth named “Onion,” whose storyline is engaging and, who, after the bloody events in Kansas, acts as a witness to the sufferings of black-Americans, enslaved and free, and John Brown’s final moments.
I enjoyed Joshua Caleb Johnson’s performance as Onion. I felt for the struggle exhibited by Hubert Point- Du Jour as Bob and the unique nature of Daveed Diggs’ portrayal of the significant historical figure Frederick Douglass. He did a few things that reminded me of his performance as Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton. Still, I was captivated by those scenes when he either performed Douglass’ profoundly important “4th of July” speech or argued over the merits of Brown’s final plan. Diggs is a brilliant actor and his interpretation here, of Douglass, was exciting and mesmerizing. In a seven-episode miniseries that used modern music, comedy, and horrific historical drama with significant effect, it is Ethan Hawke as Brown that will forever occupy the show’s legacy.
It didn’t matter what Hawke did as Brown; each time the show’s arc curved back to him, it was profoundly better. John Brown’s story is like a Greek tragedy, years in the making, but whose finale is all the more dramatic because the character is proven right by history. Hawke was electric and somehow proved Brown to be a sane, yet flawed, man history has always seemed to bypass, forget, or brush off and label as “insane.” McGlone took issue with that in his book. Even those maniacal monologue moments when appearing to be “crazy” Hawke, by the finale, performs in a way that illustrates that while Brown might be enraged, he meant what he said, fought for what he believed, and died in service to the destruction of slavery. My favorite instances were Brown’s one-liners, long fiery sermons, and those exhilarating moments when Hawke lost his shit and became John Brown, the “.44 Caliber Abolitionist.”
I applaud Ethan Hawke for making me forget he was in this series, as all I saw was Brown. Hawke indeed morphed into the character. The first and second episodes provided two brilliant John Brown moments. His initial appearance, which I must admit, was exciting. In episode two, when he stands in front of a cannon screaming, first who he is and then holding two pistols, he acted as an instrument of “the almighty” spitting scripture against his foes. The imagery was striking; the structure of those scenes was poetically assembled and dramatically captured. I loved the show’s use of mellow and robust original music to underscore the settings and modern music to represent a scene’s power. When Onion accidentally derails a slave rebellion, which horrifically led to the execution of a number of those involved, the music used was powerful. The somber tone is defined by using Bob Dylan’s 1967 song “I Shall Be Released,” sung by Nina Simone, in a scene that quickly results in viewer tears with the impressive vocals and haunting images. Interwoven between periods of action and absurdity, we witness human struggles of bondage, America’s terrible legacy of slavery and inhumanity – all of which demonstrated with a modern approach and human touch. This technique is achieved by linking classical and contemporary music, superb written dialogue, well-designed action, and brutal, realistic imagery and maintaining a world where consequences are assigned to every action, if not equally.
The scene where Brown preached at the Chatham Convention in Ontario, Canada, conversed with Harriet Tubman, and recruited people to fight beside him was powerfully scripted. That scene and the final episode offer just two of the more compelling emotional moments from the series. While I loved Brown’s sermon and Hawke’s performance, the raid on Harper’s Ferry, a moment of historical consequence, was terrific in its depiction. Brown’s actual mental state, eventually revealed as he fails and then offers a poignant reflection on his attempt, was well handled. Not one of insanity, but one of faith and belief that for slavery to end, blood must spill, and he was the sword to strike down those who supported slavery. A failed raid, sure, but the use of Onion’s perspective and the slow-moving scenes as Brown and his followers storm out from the armory shooting was a superb choice. The final scene, where Brown and Onion talk in the jail, as Brown’s final words are narrated, and quick “snap” scenes flash in, bring on tears quickly. Brown’s hanging and last comment, “What a beautiful country,” is eloquently given by Hawke. While slightly embellished, The Good Lord Bird’s final seconds illustrate a man who feels he will achieve in death, more for the cause of abolitionism than he was able to in life, which was historically accurate.
As McGlone wrote, and The Good Lord Bird presents, Brown was a man who knew he would die for the cause to end slavery. Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass recognized that as contemporaries who supported, understood, and appreciated his fire. The Good Lord Bird brought out Brown’s zealous nature in a dramatic, and at times, comedic way, that while not 100% precisely an accurate history, made the story relatable. History can be disconnected and distant. Shows like this and the techniques used to explain the story make it real, and Brown, not some insane monster, but a genuine believer who saw a beautiful country that needed to come-alive. The story is fascinating, and while there is a lot of fiction infused into the narrative, you will watch this show, check out the novel, and then read McGlone’s book!
Hamilton: An American Musical (2020)
“I wanna sit under my own vine and fig tree– Christopher Jackson (Washington) in Hamilton
A moment alone in the shade
At home in this nation we’ve made
One last time”
While there are so many films that I could include when considering emotional moments in historical dramas, Hamilton is a perfect choice. With an inauguration next week, and a peaceful transfer of power taking place in the US, the film has several parts that, for me, as a historian, make me feel connected to the past, and inspire me to have faith in democracy. One of the most significant moments, for me in Hamilton, other than the brilliant comic relief offered by Jonathan Groff, as George III, or when Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr sings “Wait for It,” or the moment Phillipa Soo, as Eliza Hamilton, flawlessly and hauntingly sings “Burn,” is when Christopher Jackson, as George Washington, owns “One Last Time.”
Jackson sings his heart out about Washington’s historically vital decision not to seek a third term as President of the United States. The scene paints Hamilton as shocked to discover that Washington would retire, or that such power could be, well, given back to the people. Yes, America’s founding fathers had significant moral failings. Still, this scene in Hamilton shines a light on one of the most critical moments for the early Republic. The beautiful music allows the listener to live in that reconstructed past and recognize the historical gravity of that instance. The song is gorgeous, and since hearing it, I have yet to stop thinking of it. Sure, the musical Hamilton is a worldwide phenomenon, and the production is a work of art.
I felt inspired as I watched Hamilton and listened to “One Last Time.” Washington wanted to step down and allow the country to move forward, peacefully, into a new administration, whether the same political party or not. He knew a leader should not stay in power forever. There had to be some limit, an end, or the American republic could be a dictatorship. He chose to move on and, almost 240 years later, that tradition continues. Everyone should play this song, especially during our current state of affairs. It is a reminder that, while our original leaders were far from perfect and the nation they built, not without broken promises and contradictions, it provided stability for democracy that has carried on without delay.
Many people may watch this play, or film, and brush by this scene when selecting their favorite, and I could understand why. Maybe they are more inclined to choose a scene with Odom Jr. as Burr, Soo as Eliza Hamilton or Daveed Diggs as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. But, for me, the back and forth between Lin-Manuel Miranda, as Hamilton, and Jackson, as they discuss Washington’s Farewell Address, and his need to teach the nation to say goodbye and seek out “their own vine and fig tree,” is beautifully poetic and historically significant.
HBO Miniseries John Adams (2008)
John Adams: Do you not believe in saying what you think? / Benjamin Franklin: No, I’m very much against it. Thinking aloud is a habit responsible for much of mankind’s misery.– Paul Giamatte (Adams) & Tom Wilkinson (Franklin) in John Adams
The emotional response I had watching that musical number in Hamilton is similar to what I felt watching the second episode, “Independence,” from the miniseries John Adams, which aired on HBO in 2008. When this series premiered, I remember thinking, HBO is making a show about the American Revolution; are you kidding me? As a historian who focuses on Early American history, and being from Massachusetts, the birthplace of American revolutionary sentiment, I could not contain my glee. Directed by Tom Hooper, written by Kirk Ellis, and a fantastic score composed by Rob Lane, the series had everything one could want. When it aired, I had my HBO subscription ready and a copy of David McCullough John Adams, the miniseries adapted from, in my hands.
The show’s premiere was mind-blowing. Separated into seven episodes, the miniseries takes John Adams’ biography from his political position regarding the March 1770 Boston Massacre to his death on July 4, 1826, the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It was a marvelous show, but episode two, “Independence,” is the clear standout. With incredible political imagery and passionate, emotional events, the episode covers a lot of ground. The episode outlines, visually, the key events that forced the Continental Congress to seek redress from Great Britain after the Boston Tea Party, and engagement at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, and then, ultimately, to revolution. With historically riveting monologues, witty one-liners, and flawless acting from some Hollywood heavyweights, the most impressive scene was one with near-absolute silence.
“Independence” is a wonderfully dramatic representation of a critical time in the American past. It displays the debate surrounding Revolutionary era politics, the struggle of those, like women, surviving during the war and a smallpox pandemic, and whether a colonial movement for freedom could truly bring 13 radically different colonies together. After the debates, politicking, and continued disrespect of colonial rights, John Adams, played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti, tirelessly secured unanimous consent of all states for a Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. It will proclaim, in one voice, that the states are free. Before representatives can read this radical declaration to the American people, each representative must vote in favor of or against this statement, but doing so means war. The visual of the debate and vote, as seen in “Independence,” was spellbinding.
Often, in the US, we don’t consider how radical the American Revolution was. Yes, the revolution failed to achieve all its goals and uphold its moral promises, like recognizing the equality and freedom of black-Americans and ending slavery, securing women’s rights and equality, and protecting indigenous peoples’ rights. It lit a match and removed the lid on a movement that history could not contain. That moment, in John Adams, as the vote is cast, carried, and certified, and the camera pans over to the faces of all the delegates in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, is numbing. They look excited, terrified, and unsure of, well, to borrow from Hamilton, “what comes next?” An outstanding score, mixed with the quick weaving of the Declaration of Independence’s reading to close the episode, is inspiring. It ends with John Adams reflecting on “what comes next” as he looks directly into the camera, which is wonderfully poetic.
“Trip: I ain’t fightin’ this war for you, sir. / Colonel Robert G. Shaw: I see. / Trip: I mean, what’s the point? Ain’t nobody gonna win. It’s just gonna go on and on. / Colonel Robert G. Shaw: Can’t go on forever. / Trip: Yeah, but ain’t nobody gonna win, sir. / Colonel Robert G. Shaw: Somebody’s gonna win. / Trip: Who? I mean, you get to go on back to Boston, big house and all that. What about us? What do we get? / Colonel Robert G. Shaw: Well, you won’t get anything if we lose.”– Denzel Washington (Trip) & Mathew Broderick (Shaw) in Glory
Few movies have inspired me in the way the film Glory did. Glory, which was released in 1989 by TriStar Pictures, and directed by Edward Zwick, is the true story of the courageous 54th African-American Massachusetts Infantry Regiment organized during the Civil War. A movie with an incredible musical score by James Horner, Kevin Jarre’s dialogue, strong cinematography, and fantastic acting from Denzel Washington, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for this performance, Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher, Carey Elwes, and, of course, Mathew Broderick. As someone from New Bedford, Massachusetts, watching this movie in school was a rite of passage.
William H. Carney, whose story Washington’s character, Trip, borrows from, lived in New Bedford. He was a former slave who escaped through the Underground Railroad and eventually served in the 54th Massachusetts. When confederates killed the flag bearer during the 1864 Battle of Fort Wagner, he grabbed the flag and marched forward, inspiring his troops to continue the charge. In 1900 he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery and many battle wounds. His story is one that my hometown honors. It makes sense why, among countless other reasons, this film was shown continuously in school.
When thinking about which scene in Glory, more than most, trigger my historical passion, it is nearly impossible. Is it ok to say every scene with Denzel? No, ok, but this movie is filled with incredible battle scenes, horrifying drama, and brief moments of quiet reflection with beautiful narration alongside Horner’s compelling score. It’s a film that moves me, and I measure all movies based on historical topics to Glory. Glory is not solely a “war film” and is better than most war genre films or historical dramas. When examining those scenes that stayed with me, there are several to consider. Glory is unquestionably both tragic and magnificent. I could focus on Broderick’s narration as a whole, or several of Morgan Freeman’s monologues, or Andre Braugher’s dramatic range during training sequences, or the haunting tear that streamed down Washington’s cheek as Shaw instructs a Sergeant to unjustly and horrifyingly flogged him for desertion. All of those scenes offer drama, historical insight, and brilliant acting. One instance of significant historical power is, well, a scene with Denzel! It is a meaningful scene between Broderick (Shaw) and Washington (Trip) standing beside a lake, the night before the final battle.
That scene is a conversation, but one centered on what the war means to those fighting it. Shaw asked Trip if he wanted to be the flag bearer and hoist it up as they marched into battle. Trip had an issue holding the flag and seemed at odds with Shaw about the nature, meaning, and possible result of the Civil War. Their peaceful back and forth underscores the terrible history of racial injustice in American history. Trip wanted to fight, demanded his freedom but was distrusting, rightly so, of what the Union stood for and against. It’s a short scene, but one that showcases the disjointed arguments of those that fought, the agency each individual brought into the struggle, and whether America would be different once the war ended.
While that conversation was impressive, It is the final assault on Fort Wagner that has long stayed with me. Although American cinema loves a good war film, I am not a war movie fan. Sure, I see Platoon as a pinnacle of this genre, William DeFoe owned it, and a few of my favorite historical films center around the war narrative. I love Glory because the film honors the 54th Massachusetts and tells of their historical legacy. The battle scenes are a small part of a movie that values the narrative, dialogue, score, and overall human message. Those few battle scenes included are compelling cinematic moments, but the last scene combines both an epic war moment and brutal drama, which helps this film stand on its own in the pantheon of historical dramas.
The last scene is one of majesty and magnificence. The score, cinematography, and overall emotional impact allow it to stand the test of time. Shaw’s emotionally charged speech, the volunteering of the 54th to lead the assault, and the moment the men climb the fort but are meet by a rain of bullets, is a stirring historical reminder. The sound, color, and performances of the actors are breathtaking. Still, it is Trip’s sacrifice, after watching Shaw get gunned downed and the regimental flag fall, he charges, hoists up the flag, and demands the regiment continue with its assault, as Carney did in 1864. Although Trip, unlike Carney, perishes in this moment of bravery, this scene, beginning with Shaw’s speech, is an impressive final 20 minutes. I have never forgotten Denzel’s face as light and color, emotion, history, and musical score intersected. It’s a moment of perfect cinematic magic and excellent visual construction of a significant event.
“Buzzard’s guts, man! I am the President of the United States of America! Clothed in immense power! You will procure me these votes.”– Daniel Day Lewis (Lincoln) in Lincoln
Last week when insurrectionists violently stormed the U.S. Capitol, I was reminded that not since the War of 1812 had the people’s house been breached. How lost the country seems, how horrifying last week’s event was, how fragile democracy appears. I saw a mob fight with police inside the U.S. Capitol rotunda surrounded by paintings by John Trumbull, placed there between 1819-1824, depicting significant moments of America’s early beginnings. Images like The Declaration of Independence, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, and General George Washington Resigning his Commission – those that Americans hold in high regard. The irony is not lost on me.
I often reflect on cinematic expressions of history in times like these. Soon after, I put on Hamilton and grew emotional as I watched. I sought solace in Historical drama to feel connected to those moments when America’s path was designed, defended, and determined. Then I put in Lincoln. I enjoyed watching Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s movie. When he slams his hands on the desk, lowers his voice with a powerful force, and demands his cabinet members procure him the votes necessary to pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, Lewis became Lincoln the same way Hawke became Brown. That is when Historical drama wins me over and why I keep going back to the well, more often than not.
Cover Image by Ajeet Mestry on Unsplash