Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will play African-American folk hero John Henry in a new Netflix movie – but not everyone is pleased with his casting in such an iconic role.
For those not familiar with the legend of John Henry, he’s a mythic African-American steel driver who is said to have successfully raced against a steam-powered rock drilling machine with just his bare hands and a hammer, a contest which killed him but earned him his victory.
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Traditionally he has been portrayed in cartoons and TV shows as a dark-skinned black man. That’s why many have taken issue with the fact that Johnson is mixed-race and light-skinned – when opportunities for dark-skinned black actors in Hollywood can be much more limited.
Others have hit back, arguing that Johnson’s skin colour should not limit the roles he can play.
Describing Henry as one of his “childhood heroes”, Johnson told his Instagram followers: “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.”
He also stressed the personal significance of John Henry, writing: “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.”
When the man comes around..
Honored to play a childhood hero of mine, JOHN HENRY & his disruptive band of fellow folklore legends from around the world. @netflix are the perfect partners and platform to build.
Directed by Jake Kasdan (JUMANJI).
JOHN HENRY & THE STATESMEN ?? pic.twitter.com/vJ0nkCYXDH
— Dwayne Johnson (@TheRock) October 9, 2018
The controversy has centred around Johnson’s heritage, with a Samoan mother and a black father, and the issues of “colourism” and whitewashing.
The Rock is black when it's profitable and racially ambiguous when it isn't. We need a proud, strong, all-day black man to play John Henry.
— Layla????????????♉️???? (@Purple_Tulip_IV) October 9, 2018
They casted The Rock to play John Henry??? I like Dwayne and all but is he the only one out there acting?? Where is Winston Duke, Terry Crews, etc.?? This ain't it chief. pic.twitter.com/f6W5Zk2nMY
— Ashtynn (@ThatsSoAshtynn) October 9, 2018
Literally every single story I've ever seen or read portraying John Henry had him as a dark skinned, 4C hair man. Idk why yall are acting like there were folks out there imagining John Henry to look like the Rock, especially when every popular media depiction had him as dark. pic.twitter.com/PuRugdeN3A
— ???????????????? (@seasaltgum) October 10, 2018
Although I’m tired of seeing the Rock in every damn movie, I do love him! However, John Henry was a very dark skin man & yes that matters, like what audience is this movie for?? When Zoe Saldana played Nina Simone & was literally in black face, we were pissed, it’s not thier role
— LeBrona ? Russella ? (@Tee_aww_knee) October 9, 2018
This is the cover of the John Henry book I have, and have had since second grade. The Rock doesn't look anything like this. Which, no, no, no. He can't be John Henry. pic.twitter.com/Mnf1Y64eUf
— Lauren Pleska ????️???? (@RadFemme74) October 9, 2018
But others have weighed in, arguing that it shouldn’t be about the shade of his skin colour…
This discourse about The Rock not being black enough to play John Henry kinda brings up a lot of my own feelings about being biracial and not being "enough" of one ethnicity to belong or represent them. It's also confusing how blackness is a moving target. Like Obama is biracial
— Current Resident (@estevezcamillio) October 10, 2018
If black actors can play white characters, like Idris Elba in Dark Tower or the proposed James Bond role, then mixed race or even white actors like the Rock should be able to play black characters like John Henry. Color shouldn't matter but the ability to act should.
— Anthony Bingus (@anthony_bingus) October 10, 2018
JOHN HENRY?! WOAH ???? I WAS JUST READING ABOUT HIM TO OUR KIDS. THIS IS HUGE!!CONGRATS TO YA DJ & THE ENTIRE ROCK TEAM. IT’S GONNA BE A TEAR JERKER. THE LEGENDARY J. H. DIES BUT HIS STORY & STRENGTH LIVES ON. (DJ you’re a perfect fit!) ????????????????⛏
— PATRICIA???????????????????? (@LOVINGUBLUE) October 10, 2018
No release date has been announced, but Netflix says John Henry and the Statesmen is “coming soon.”