The film ‘John Henry,’ directed by Will Forbes, is a philosophical blend of a folktale and a modern story. The protagonist, John Henry (Terry Crews), is a physically big and seemingly intimidating man with a soft heart. More so, he is torn between his oath to never take up violence and protecting his loved ones from harm. Living in a neighborhood with one of the most feared sex-trafficking gang does not help. Even though one is left wondering about the wide-reaching intent and focus of the film, it surely gives a few narrative elements to ponder upon.
The film starts with a home video of BJ, John Henry’s father telling him why he named him ‘John Henry.’ When John was born, he held his father’s finger in a really tight grip that inspired BJ to name his son John Henry, based on the folklore. As a youth, he becomes involved in a gang, but his conscience does not sit right with the murders and other crimes committed by them. As a result, he tells his cousin he wants out. But, his cousin tries to coax John into staying by giving him a gun. A tug and push end up in a shot being fired at his cousin. This cousin of John’s grows up to be a notorious kingpin called Hell (Ludacris), who dabbles in both drugs and human trafficking. He has a precious metal plate covering the disjointed side of his jaw, that was affected when he was shot.
Berta, a girl from Honduras, makes a close escape with the help of her brother and step-brother after she was kidnapped for prostitution by Hell’s gang. She accidentally ends up at John’s front porch, and he is immediately overcome by a fatherly urge to protect her. Soon, her step-brother, Emilio, joins them and explains to John and BJ about how Berta and Oscar came there looking for their deceased father. In any case, it isn’t long before Emilio and BJ are gunned down by Hell’s gang, after which, Hell himself makes an appearance with his personalized flame thrower. One of his gang members shoots John in the head and kidnaps Berta. Though grazed with a bullet wound, he preps himself with a hammer and takes down Hell once and for all, freeing Berta and Oscar. A strong John pulls through in the end, though he was shot at multiple times.
The film is quite straightforward with its plot. That said, it also switches back and forth between the past and present of John in an attempt to define and give reasons as to why he cannot make himself pick up a gun. The film’s narration thus occurs in three modes. The home videos that tell a particular story about John’s past, a specific encounter that defines both John’s and Hell’s life from therein, and of course, the present where most of the plot unravels.
It is only near the end that all of these narrative modes blend to make complete sense. The home videos show the kind of people John and his father were before we see them with Berta. In the first tape, BJ explains why John was named John Henry, because of the incredible physical strength he exhibited as a toddler. Much details are spared then, but towards the end, we can see that there is more to it. John’s grandmother says something, almost like a whisper, about how John Henry was born, splitting his mother into two. Though we only know that his mother passed away when he was young, this comes as a revelation to understand that his mother died giving birth to him. The other tapes reveal the kind of life he led in a gang, with the addition of the security footage, which shows John killing a man in one blow.
The second important flashback is that of his conversation with Hell from when they were younger. It shows the dramatic yet realistic divide between the protagonist and the villain of the film. While John is against violence, Hell is motivated to commit crimes not for loving the deeds in itself but for power. He aspires to gain respect through fear. His reason for this is that he doesn’t merely want to be ‘statistics.’ In other words, someone who just lived and died. He uses gang violence and crimes as a stepping ladder to gain fame and respect. But John’s PTSD to hold a gun comes from this encounter where he accidentally shot his cousin.
Towards the very end, in the standoff between John and Hell, we can see that his father wasn’t wrong in saying that John is extremely strong. He also doesn’t lack courage as he takes up a hammer instead of a gun to win back his loved ones who were taken away from him. This then also becomes an allusion to the folktale of John Henry with his hammer. John is hinted at having supernatural strength as he outlives a bullet to his head and multiple gunshots to his body. Courage and strength can thus be re-imagined in this modern adaptation of the folk tale but spares John from death, which was the ultimate fate of the John Henry from the folklore.
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