On Tuesday, Hollywood superstar and media darling Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson announced via his Facebook page that he would be playing the titular role of John Henry in an upcoming Netflix adaptation of the legendary folk hero, John Henry and the Statesmen.
Johnson’s production company, Seven Buck Productions, will be producing the film, which allowed Johnson to cast himself in the role.
Along with this teaser, Johnson also discussed how excited he was to play the role and why it was important to him:
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Thx for all the luv and great to see everyone pumped for our JOHN HENRY & THE STATESMEN movie. We have a great take on this folklore legend and his disruptive band of STATESMEN, who will be a bad ass multi cultural gang of fellow folklore legends from cultures all around the world. My old man would tell me bedtime stories about John Henry, and he’d always sing me, “Big John” to put me to sleep. Then of course the next day, he’d take me down to the gym and beat my ass on the wrestling mats. We’ll call those, the tough luv years lol. Thx again for the support of the “Steel driving man” #JohnHenry 💪🏾🔨 #AndTheStatesmen 🌎 #NETFLIX
In folklore, John Henry is an African-American man with a reputation as a “steel driving man,’ due to his occupation of making holes in mountains to allow for construction of rail road tunnels. This reputation leads him to compete against a steam-powered drilling machine. Though he is victorious, Henry dies immediately after, as his heart gives out due to the stress of the competition. The legend of John Henry is an extremely popular folk lore tale and is consistently heralded as a symbol for civil rights champions.
The legend and character have also seen numerous adaptations, such as DC’s John Henry “Steel” Irons, An episode of Tall Tales & Legends starring Danny Glover, and even as a playable character in Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.. The most iconic of these adaptations, however, is the Walt Disney animated short released in 1999, John Henry. This animated short is routinely cited by many as their primary exposure to the legend.
As is inevitable when attempting to bring a character of color to the big screen, Johnson’s casting sparked outrage by the more social justice inclined. This was due to the fact that many believe that Johnson is not ‘black enough’ to play the African-American folk hero:
So often stories are whitewashed or portrayed by lighter actors for marketability. I just think black kids shouldn’t have to question if John Henry was black or mixed or not, it should be very clear in the casting since it’s origins is black folklore.
— Extrasolar (@BeenRooted) October 10, 2018
The Rock is cool and all, but can we actually use one it the very many talented, swole, ambiguously Black actors to play a swole, unambiguously Black John Henry? This is straight up colorism. https://t.co/IjUAJwzIqV pic.twitter.com/vxwGjKk8PM
— Wambua ?? (@DJ_Royel) October 10, 2018
He’s not John Henry black. And if he tries to talk Southern, his percentage will get revoked!
— ariana21 (@ariana263932280) October 10, 2018
The Rock, a light-skinned black man who gets by on his respectable politics and racial ambiguity, has no busy playing John Henry, a dark-skinned African American icon
— Spooky Jay (@JaylenShanePear) October 10, 2018
Why would you not cast @Winston_Duke as John Henry?… I have nothing against the rock… But there are other you know… BLACK actors!
— HALLOWFIEND ? ♌ (@ApolloAdmetus1) October 10, 2018
The Rock is NOT the kind of black for the role of John Henry.
— HalloWeezy F Baby and the F for Frightening (@Mariah_Cara) October 10, 2018
These tweets, however, effectively erase his African-American heritage. As one twitter user points out:
His Mother Is From Samoa. And His Father Is Rocky Johnson (A Black Man & Old School Wrestler, Who Dealt With Tons Of Racism In The Wrestling Ring And Out, I Might Add). Rock’s Samoan Ancestry Doesn’t Make Him Any Less Black… WTF Is Wrong With Y’all? pic.twitter.com/Xs1FxVzzuR
— The Count of Watts (@JAY_KOFA) October 10, 2018
This is not the first time a social justice-oriented mentality has erased someone’s heritage simply because they did not meet an arbitrary, unmeasurable level of a ‘proper’ trait. Actress Ruby Rose was recently driven off Twitter due to a barrage of attacks from people who believed that Rose did not deserve to play the role of Batwoman because she was not ‘gay’ or ‘Jewish’ enough. Peter Dinklage received backlash after he announced he would be playing Herve Villechaize because some believed Villechaise was Filipino, despite the fact that Villechaise has no Filipino heritage.
Thankfully, many other fans of Johnson’s, including many fans of color, took to calling out the hypocrisy of such criticism and the baselessness of the outrage it sparked:
The Rock is Black and Samoan.
Until recently, he has not made a big effort to remind y’all of that publicly.
He did Moana in reference to his Samoan heritage and wants to do John Henry in reference to his Black heritage.
Help me understand y’all’s issue.
— ☥ Womb Broom Groomer ☥ (@_ShowtimeRX) October 10, 2018
Minimizing the Black identity of someone from a mixed race background, as you are doing with the Rock, who has always spoken proudly about his father and the Black side of his heritage, is an act of colorism, plain and simple. Do better.
— Leon Smith (@Leon_Esq) October 10, 2018
I bet the kids in the hood can’t wait for the John Henry movie. Of course they would have to be told who John Henry is (he’s not the owner of @RedSox). It’s racist AF to question Rock’s blackness- he’s as black as Obama. There is no arbiter of blackness- seek outrage elsewhere.
— Ebenezer Gatsby (@ebgatsby) October 10, 2018
Y’all didn’t give a damn that Chadwick played Thurgood Marshall’s high yellow ass but mad The Rock wants to play a man who may or may not have been darker (because no one actually knows). ? who cares
— White Doug (@EricBisPrez) October 10, 2018
So if y’all mad the Rock is playing this character because he’s half black, then should we stop calling Obama the first black president? ?
— Chris1883 (@kingchris83) October 10, 2018
To cast a character of an appropriate race in an adaptation of an important cultural mythos is not only respectful, but it shows a true commitment to authenticity. However, if actors are cast based on arbitrary and subjective ‘levels’ of race, this not only hurts the chances of hiring someone based on talent, but also displays an alarming level of racism and cultural gate keeping. This can also lead to the very people the social justice inclined claim to fight for being harmed, as actors could begin to be denied roles simply because their melanin levels are lower than another actor’s or even typecast as a ‘dark skinned black man’ instead of focusing on his acting skills and performances.
John Henry and the Statesmen will be directed by Jake Kasdan (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and will be available for exclusive streaming on Netflix. No release date has been announced.