Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s next role puts him in the shoes of one of the most celebrated African-American folk heroes. Shadow and Act reported yesterday (October 9) that the actor and former wrestler will play the titular lead role in “John Henry and the Statesman.” Johnson will also produce the Netflix movie, which will be directed by Jake Kasdan, who worked with Johnson on “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.” It’s scripted by Tom Wheeler (“Puss in Boots”).
Legend casts Henry as a powerful railroad worker who hammered through mountains so his employers could lay steel railroad tracks. Henry competes against a steam-powered rock drilling machine and bests it, only to die from the exertion. A Longform article traces the story to various claims about Black men who worked on railroads in the 1800s, as the United States government and industrialists sought to expand the country’s military and commercial power to the Pacific Ocean.
Henry’s legend survives in “The Ballad of John Henry,” a much-covered blues and folk song that depicts its hero as a heroic common man. Despite this characterization, historian Scott Reynolds Nelson wrote in his 2006 book, “Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend,” that the real Henry was incarcerated in Virginia for stealing from a grocery store shortly after the Civil War. The state’s Black Codes condemned the teenage Henry to the Virginia State Penitentiary, which leased him and other Black incarcerated individuals for forced labor on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway.
Johnson wrote about his connection to the legend of John Henry in the caption for a teaser clip he posted on Instagram yesterday:
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
A post shared by therock (@therock) on Oct 9, 2018 at 11:50am PDT
The dark skinned John Henry of Black folklore? (A double jab)— George M Johnson (@IamGMJohnson) October 9, 2018
Yeah that’s a no https://t.co/l2tB9rKy3L
John Henry has always been depicted as dark-skinned but o k a y https://t.co/48Gq5KG9Vr— Ira (@ira) October 9, 2018