As far as celebrities go, Dwayne Johnson is largely beloved, but not everyone is cheering on his latest project.
With much social media fanfare, the actor also known as the Rock announced Tuesday that he’ll be making and starring in the film John Henry and the Statesmen about the folk hero, an African-American steel-driver among a team of railroad builders who literally worked himself to death. Johnson said the project held a special place in his heart because Henry was one of his “childhood heroes” and his father, former pro wrestler Rocky Johnson, used to sing “Big John” to him before he put him to sleep as a kid.
However, soon after Johnson announced the project, which will feature “an ensemble of the most popular folklore figures and legends from different cultures around the world,” there was backlash over whether Johnson, whose father is black and whose mother is Samoan, should be playing a character that has been depicted as a dark-skinned black man. (Other actors to have played the role include Danny Glover in TV’s Shelley Duvall’s Tall Tales and Legends and Roger Aaron Brown, in the 1995 Disney film Tall Tale.) In animations — like the 2000 Disney animated short — the character is typically dark-skinned as well. Twitter was quick to react to Johnson’s decision to cast himself.
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 🧐🧐🧐.
I’m legitimately curious who the target audience for this movie is meant to be.
— Charles PM (@CharlesPulliam) October 9, 2018
John Henry has always been depicted as dark-skinned but o k a y https://t.co/48Gq5KG9Vr
— Ira (@ira) October 9, 2018
The Rock as John Henry…🧐🧐🧐
— Charles PM (@CharlesPulliam) October 9, 2018
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.
— Rising Pupil (@risingpupil) October 9, 2018
Only on-screen John Henry I acknowledge pic.twitter.com/62cxZwyd1Q
— 6OWSETTE (@CineMasai_) October 9, 2018
People also suggested the names of other actors who seemed better suited for the role. Terry Crews was mentioned more than once.
H*ll freaking no. John Henry is a large muscular dark skinned black man and his love is a black woman. Terry Crews? Michael Jai White? Winston Duke…They need to stop the madness before it even begins. Woe betide them if they put him in a tanning bed and add makeup.😒 https://t.co/q8uDJAiDYq
— Mage of Micturition and 👸🏾of Free Flow (@catjacarol01) October 9, 2018
Friend on John Henry casting:
Is terry crews ill?
Did Winston Duke break something?
Is Common's agent taking a nap?
Is Denzel's son out of the country?
Did Idris Elba fall into a coma?
Has Kofi Siriboe eaten some bad clams?
Did Aldis Hodge buy nonrefundable concert tickets?
— Showtime Synergy! (Shani, The 5th Hologram) (@BlerdMommy) 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
Others wanted to see a newcomer in the role. After all, there’s no shortage of movies starring the Rock these days. (He’ll be finishing Hobbs and Shaw and shooting Jumanji 2 prior to production.)
Why can't someone who hasn't worked on fifty billion projects this year do this? Let it be someone's breakout.
Plus? They're downplaying black folklore and calling it ~universal~. Also, John Henry was dark skinned. https://t.co/0pOX63Gqdl
— Jen-O-Lantern 🎃 (@darlinginmyway) October 9, 2018
Nope. He's great, but he's definitely not John Henry. This is a wonderful time for someone new to break in. John Henry was dark skinned & young https://t.co/szYkQin59w
— ❄Mikki Kendall❄ (@Karnythia) October 9, 2018
People were also worried about who would play the supporting roles in light of the Rock being in the lead.
I can see it now. . . The Rock gonna give John Henry a white Latina love interest. 🙄
— Genie Lauren (@MoreAndAgain) October 9, 2018
So we can sit & watch John Henry's wife be played by Katie Holmes?
— Nine-Taled Foxy🦊🔥🎃 (@FoxyJazzabelle) October 9, 2018
Some didn’t like the entire concept.
I'm less concerned w/ Dwayne Johnson performing the voice of John Henry and more concerned with the story itself. 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.
— Son of Baldwin (@SonofBaldwin) October 10, 2018
Several people also mentioned the backlash Zoe Saldana faced when the actress was cast as jazz legend Nina Simone.
By all accounts, I think that casting The Rock as John Henry is just as terrible as Zoe Saldana playing Nina Simone… for several reasons.
— DeVona✌🏾 (@dmitch_madeit08) October 10, 2018
This is going to be a bigger mess than the Nia Simone bio-pic. Are they going to use blackface make up or just have a high yella John Henry? We know his wife can't be darker than him so, will she even be black?
— Torchy Windrush Brown🇯🇲🇬🇧🇬🇩 (@MinoWarrior) October 9, 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
Last year, Johnson — who has portrayed white, black, and Pacific Islander characters onscreen — told GQ that people most frequently guess that he is “…Greek?” However, he says he often describes himself as “brown” — or more aptly a “big, brown, bald, tattooed, very lucky SOB.”
A rep for Johnson has not yet responded to Yahoo’s request for comment about the backlash. However, the actor later posted on social media to say he’s thrilled “to see everyone pumped for” the film. While he didn’t mention the criticism, he did talk about how Henry was “a legend in African-American folk lore, which I grew up with.” He also talked about his own family history, mentioning the slave roots in his ancestry. “My dad always used to talk about our family coming up through the underground rail road as slaves, finally settling in Canada,” he said.
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