In this day and age, it’s hard to deny Dwayne Johnson’s status as one of Hollywood’s most formidable and ubiquitous superstars. In his post WWE career, his prolific work in film has steadily amounted to a refinement of the endearing “macho, lovable action hero with an exaggerated level of skill and avid devotion to family” archetype. And Johnson hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. He’s currently set to appear in four films in 2019, and now he has excitedly announced he will be playing folklore hero John Henry in an upcoming Netflix film called John Henry and the Statesmen.
Variety reported that the film is based on a pitch developed by Hiram Garcia (president of production at Dwayne Johnson and Dany Garcia’s company, Seven Bucks) and screenwriter Tom Wheeler, whose credits include The Lego Ninjago Movie, Puss in Boots, and Netflix’s forthcoming TV series Cursed. The film will also reunite Johnson with his Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle director, Jake Kasdan. Watch a teaser for the project that Johnson posted to Instagram along with a passionate pitch below.
Details about John Henry and the Statesmen remain scant, but based on reports and Johnson’s Instagram post, it’s clear the story will center on John Henry, a beloved and mythic figure in American folklore. As a steel-driver, John Henry hammered spikes into rocks surrounding train tracks to resist the emergence of steam-powered drills, which replaced the tireless work of railroad employees. The role requires sincerity, heart, and some extreme strength; it thus aligns with some of Johnson’s best performances: Luke Hobbs from The Fast and Furious franchise, Maui from Moana, and Beck from The Rundown.
However, it’s worth mentioning that Johnson has received some warranted backlash for taking on the role. John Henry has become an important symbol for the African-American community, and he is typically portrayed as a dark-skinned black man. As a light-skinned, mixed-race man, Johnson hasn’t ever explicitly identified as black, which has prompted online discussion on the appropriateness of the casting decision (this sort of controversy isn’t new for The Rock either).
Johnson, meanwhile, cites personal reasons for taking on the role without clearly mentioning race. He identified John Henry as one of his “childhood heroes” and claims he will “lead an ensemble of the most popular folklore figures and legends from different cultures around the world.” He recalls:
“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.”
Based on this anecdote, Johnson upholds some emotional attachment to John Henry, and the film will be a personal project for the international star. While Johnson reliably plays the same goofy, uber-strong, and heroic family man to perfection, the quality of his films has vastly varied, especially of late. In the last two years, he has excelled in some hits (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and The Fate of the Furious) and underwhelmed in some misses (Skyscraper, Rampage, and Baywatch)
But because Johnson speaks passionately of John Henry and the project, he will likely fully devote himself in properly rendering his “childhood hero.” This is a good sign: when Johnson strays away from generic comedies or lackluster action flicks and commits to more personal films — a la Moana and The Fast and Furious franchise — he proves his universal appeal for critics and audiences alike. Due to Johnson’s ardent enthusiasm in the project and his impressive track record with personal films, John Henry and the Statesman has some serious potential.
The other creative faces behind John Henry and the Statesman also hint at the film’s potential success. As mentioned, Johnson and Kasdan are re-teaming after the surprise hit Jumanji, which grossed nearly a billion dollars worldwide and cemented itself as one of Johnson’s most foreboding hits to date. Johnson and Kasdan’s joint efforts delivered one of 2017’s most crowd-pleasing, endearing films. Netflix head of film Scott Stuber notes:
“He and Jake are a tremendous duo with a proven track record of entertaining audiences worldwide. We’re delighted to be able to partner with them and collaborate with Seven Bucks Productions and FPC. This is a story with universal appeal and we can’t wait to bring these characters to families around the globe.”
Indeed, when considering Johnson and Kasdan’s previous international successes, John Henry and the Statesman carries indelible crowd-pleasing allure and has the ingredients to ascend to Hollywood blockbuster royalty.
Netflix’s backing of John Henry and the Statesman after a “heated bidding war that attracted many of the major studios” all the more amplifies the filmmaking prowess backing the film. For the past few years, Netflix original films have not generated the same acclaim or attention as its television series (Stranger Things, BoJack Horseman, Bloodline, American Vandal, and Mindhunter). However, the streaming giant’s entries in the film industry have recently grown in stature. This summer, Netflix released a string of popular rom-coms — To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Set It Up, The Kissing Booth — which became online sensations.
In addition to John Henry and the Statesman, Netflix has invested in some in costly Hollywood projects to enhance its prominence in the film industry. Michael Bay and Ryan Reynolds are currently filming the $150 million budgeted Six Underground for the streaming service. Netflix also just committed itself to the Steven Soderbergh-directed The Laundromat starring Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, and Antonio Banderas. Netflix original First Ladies, starring Jennifer Aniston and Tig Notaro, is currently in development, and Martin Scorsese just finished filming big-budgeted epic The Irishman for them.
These films comprise a few of the countless forthcoming Netflix originals; it’s clear the service has enough expenditures to invest in these colossal, star-studded flicks and further obtain a more theatrical presence. Perhaps John Henry and the Statesman will provide Netflix with the momentum it needs to standardize film as it has with television.
The release date and production schedule for John Henry and the Statesman remains unclear — at the moment, Johnson is filming the Fast and Furious spinoff Hobbs and Shaw, and Kasdan is in pre-production for the Jumanji sequel. It will likely be an arduous wait before we see if Netflix, Johnson, and Kasdan can deliver the potentials of John Henry and the Statesman. With the talented cast and crew behind the film, coupled with an accessible platform, it’s easy to foresee the film as a broad, family-friendly romp that will further solidify Johnson and Netflix’s powerful presence in our media landscape.