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Is John Henry a True Story?

May 16, 2020
4 min read

Will Forbes’ ‘John Henry’ is a film that seeks to make one think beyond what the plot suggests. The film is about a man named John Henry (Terry Crews) who has left behind his life of violence. However, it is not all in the past as he is forced to confront his demons as he attempts to rescue his loved ones.

Is John Henry Based on a True Story?

No, ‘John Henry’ is not based on a real story. However, it is inspired by the folklore of John Henry, an African American man who was famous for his incredible strength. The film uses the overarching framework on this folktale to detail its themes. ‘John Henry’ is very much set in the present times dealing with gang violence. But, there is an essence of the folklore that predominantly lingers in the background.

The Folklore of John Henry

John Henry is a folk hero in the African American community. His occupation was that of a steel driver, and this was before machine drills came into existence. As it is, using a steel hammer to make holes on rocks is a task all by itself, but John Henry was believed to have had immense strength that made him do it with relative ease when compared to others.

Photo Credit: wvtourism.com

Though his existence has been widely contested, the allusion to the folk figure still remains. The legend is that this steel driver participated in a race with a steam-powered drilling machine, to see who could get more work done in less time. It is believed that John Henry won, but as the competition was done, his heart gave out, and he died. Some even allege that he had something akin to a stroke due to the stress. John Henry is believed to have held his hammer in a tight grip, even in death. This is the symbolic association between John Henry and the hammer.

Historians have tried to dig into the matter to know the origins of this figure and where he might have worked. But the answers have not yet merged into one, as several theories exist.

Socio-Political Significance

The legend of John Henry, irrespective of it being true or false, has some far-reaching meaning behind it. Many believe that the story is symbolic of representing humankind’s transition into the Industrial Age, where machines were replacing manual labor. As a result of this, many began to lose their jobs. This meant fewer expenses for factory and business owners; and poverty and hardship for poor people. Thus John Henry’s need to win against the steam-powered drilling machine serves as an attempt to not succumb to the claim that human labor is any less in dignity than what machines can do.

The Industrial Age was not only about jobs but the rapid pace at which landscape in itself was changing. It was the beginning of the kind of rapid development we have today.

John Henry’s folklore was also used in the American Civil Rights Movement, wherein it was used to curb the legally approved systematic oppression against the Black community. The correlation comes from the fact that in any colonial or segregated community set-up, it is most often the ones at the bottom rung in the society, who are made to do most of the manual jobs. With the established system of slave trades and markets, history jarringly shows how African American people were forced to do hard labor without the basic essentials. One can only imagine the inhumane strength it would require for someone to do the kind of job John Henry did, and that becomes the point because such jobs were done only by people of this community. The film that borrows its inspiration from the legend shows not just physical strength as is obviously stated but also the courage and endurance that goes behind standing up for what one believes in.

Read More: John Henry Ending, Explained

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