Everyone from Paul Robeson and Harry Belfonte to Woody Gutherie and Johnny Cash and even Disney have tried to tell the story of American Legend: John Henry—now, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is set to take a swing at it for Netflix, but folks online aren't too sure he's the right muscle for the job.
Johnson has been facing a backlash ever since he posted a teaser for his new Netflix Original movie, John Henry and the Statesmen, on Instagram on Tuesday and all before it ever hits your living room screens.
The complaint? Apparently, Johnson is not "dark-skinned" enough for the role:
As the legend goes John Henry was a "steel driving man," who worked himself to death, slinging a hammer for the railroad in a contest against a machine (a steam drill) that he bested at the end of a very long, hard day of non-stop work, that inevitably killed him.
But do we even know if John Henry really was a dark-skinned black man? Or is this just a popular artist's vision like other embellishments about Henry and not representative of the man behind the myth?
When you start to look into the history of this legendary story, it all begins to unravel rather quickly. In some versions of the folk song Henry dies after taking ill to his bed post-contest but in many others he dies with his trusty hammer in his hands after his heart bursts, or he swings wrong and cracks his own ribs with the hammer and "spills his innards on the ground." There are loads of other details that vary as well depending on who's telling the tale.
As with most folks tales and songs, the details change regionally and over time, as new storytellers come along to put their own flavor on the mythology but there is always some kernel of truth upon how the tale began, whether spoken or sung.
This is the case with John Henry as well, whom scholars and historians, like Scott Reynolds Nelson (who believes he has definitively solved who John Henry was from a historical perspective in his book Steel Drivin’ Man) believe was a real man. But just exactly which man and where and when this great contest took place is still debated, with regions from Maine to Virginia to Alabama and even Texas all claiming Henry as their own.
Nelson, who was interviewed on BackStory Radio's Too Good To Be True? Myths in American History actually dispels many of the Henry mythos in his work, reporting even that Henry wasn't the big man we've all been told:
He was 5 feet, 1 1/4 inches tall.
And just like with John Henry, there may be some things Johnson's critics may not know about him as well. Johnson who has made a career playing a host of ethnically ambiguous roles—is biracial.
According to a recent interview in GQ Magazine, The Rock is:
. . .the only child of Rocky Johnson, a pioneering black Nova Scotian wrestler who performed in a tag-team duo called the Soul Patrol, and Ata Maivia, who has ties, through her father, to the Anoa'i family—a legendary clan of Samoan wrestlers.
Regardless, people seemed to take issue with what they see as his casting perpetuating "colorism" in Hollywood that he may be "white washing" a beloved African American hero:
Surprisingly, in only one version, (a Tennessee version, which can be found in Guy Johnson's book, John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend) does anyone mention the depth of darkness of Mr. Henry's skin ("coal black man") or his skin tone at all.
According to an Analysis of John Henry Music on Ibiblio:
Guy Johnson, in his definitive 1928 study, calls John Henry "the Negro's greatest folk character." Which is why the facts of John Henry's literal life - as a black man trying to work his way through a "reconstructed" South - are only incidental to the countless versions of his story passed down over a century.
A hero becomes what you need. So, in the ballad, John Henry's makeup depends on who is telling his tale. Is he a strong, black man driving the railroad west? A husband and father? A sweaty, sexual dynamo swinging the hammer? A symbol of futility because he died on the job or an inspiration because he beat the white man's steam-drill?
Some fought back against the idea that Johnson shouldn't be allowed to play the role:
What might be a more valid complaint about Johnson's Instagram post is that the Jimmy Dean song he references in the post saying:
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.
. . . (actually called Big Bad John) doesn't appear to have been intended to be about the John Henry of folklore at all.
In fact, the Story Behind the Song: Big Bad John by Jimmy Dean was recently told by country radio station KXRB:
The inspiration for the character of Big John was an actor, John Minto, that Dean met who was 6'5". Dean would call him "Big John" and grew to like the rolling sound of the phrase.
Country pianist Floyd Cramer, who was hired to play piano on the song, came up with the idea to use a hammer and a piece of steel instead. This became a distinctive characteristic of the recording.
There were, however, a few folks excited about the new project which reunites Johnson and his former Jumanji director, Jake Kasdan. Let's hope for their sakes, Johnson's hammer doesn't miss.
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