Dwayne Johnson To Star In Film Based On Black Folk Hero John Henry

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But not everyone is happy about it.
Britni Danielle Oct, 11, 2018

Dwayne Johnson has played everything from a mythical Egyptian deity in The Scorpion King, to a wheeling and dealing agent in the HBO series Ballers, but his next project will have him tapping deep into African American folklore.

Johnson announced earlier this week that he had inked a deal with Netflix to bring John Henry’s story to the screen.

“Inspired to bring to life one of my childhood heroes, John Henry, in JOHN HENRY & THE STATESMEN. In this movie, I’ll lead an ensemble of the most popular folklore figures and legends from different cultures around the world,” Johnson wrote on Instagram.

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WHEN THE MAN COMES AROUND. Inspired to bring to life one of my childhood heroes, John Henry, in JOHN HENRY & THE STATESMEN. In this movie, I’ll lead an ensemble of the most popular folklore figures and legends from different cultures around the world. @NETFLIX is the perfect partner & platform to bring these global folklore icons to life. The NETFLIX brand speaks directly to our @sevenbucksprod ethos of being bold, ambitious and game changing - and most importantly, always thinking “Audience first” in homes all around the world. The legend of JOHN HENRY’S strength, endurance, dignity and cultural pride was instilled in my DNA at a very young age. My dad would sing “Big John” to me every time he would put me to bed. At bedtime most children get loving nursery rhyme songs — I got this/ Every mornin’ at the mine, you could see him arrive. He stood 6 foot 6 and weighed 245. Kind of broad at the shoulder and narrow at the hip. And everybody knew you didn’t give no lip to Big John. Big John. Big Bad John. Directing this big ol’ tentpole is the talented and passionate, Jake Kasdan. Jake and I found nice success together in a little movie called, JUMANJI. Gonna be a lot of fun bringing these legends to life. My childhood hero. The steel driving man and his disruptive band of international folklore legends. JOHN HENRY & THE STATESMEN @sevenbucksprod @danygarciaco @hhgarcia41 @flynnpictureco @NETFLIX

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The legend of John Henry, known as a “steel-driving man” who blasted through rocks to help build railroad tunnels, has been captured in folk songs, books and on film. His size and prowess have been widely celebrated, and his story remains popular among many Black Americans.

Johnson, who is biracial, said he learned about John Henry’s story from his father, who is Black. His mother is Samoan.

“The legend of JOHN HENRY’S strength, endurance, dignity and cultural pride was instilled in my DNA at a very young age,” Johnson wrote. “My dad would sing ‘Big John’ to me every time he would put me to bed.”

In spite of Johnson’s personal connection to the story of John Henry — and his imposing physical stature — many believe the former wrestler isn’t the right man to bring John Henry’s story to life, because the “steel-driving man” was dark skinned.

“Historically, John Henry’s always been depicted as having a *very* dark skin complexion and while Dwayne Johnson is undeniably a black man, this is all quite [curious],” writer Charles Pulliam wrote on Twitter. “I’m legitimately curious who the target audience for this movie is meant to be.”

Others, weren’t so forgiving of Johnson’s choice to assume the role.

Writer and culture critic, Robert Jones, Jr. had a more nuanced approach to Johnson’s decision, choosing instead to highlight the tragedy of John Henry’s ultimate fate.

“I’m less concerned w/ Dwayne Johnson performing the voice of John Henry and more concerned with the story itself,” Jones wrote on Twitter. “A Black man who dies from stress while proving he can beat a machine sounds like just the kind of propaganda used to justify treating Black people as work horses.”

In addition to starring in John Henry and the Statesmen, Johnson will serve as a producer on the project. He said the film, which will reportedly include folk heroes from multiple cultures, will appeal to audiences who are hungry for diverse narratives.

“These diverse characters speak to a legacy of storytelling that is more relevant than ever,” Johnson said, “and span across a worldwide audience regardless of age, gender, race, or geography.”

We’ll be watching!