May 28, 2020 John Henry (Movie Review)
For those whom are unfamiliar, John Henry is an African American Folk hero. The story goes, he was a man who hammered a steel drill into rock to create holes for explosives that blasted the rock for the construction of a railroad tunnel. Often used as a symbol in cultural movements, such as the civil rights movement, John Henry is a rich part of American history.
That in mind, the folklore of John Henry has been depicted in many stories, plays, books, novels, songs… and even films. Some might recall the story of John Henry portrayed in 1995’s Tall Tale, while others might recall his character in the Shelley Duvall’s Tall Tales & Legends, a series which aired on Showtime between 1985 and 1987. Now, in 2020, the legend gets a modern spin in the new feature film John Henry.
Initially having a limited theater run on January 24, 2020 via Saban Films, it hit DVD and VOD as of March 10th. Lingering around for a while, it reached its broadest audience when it became available for streaming on Netflix in May; reaching the top 5 most-popular titles on service. Obviously peaking the curiosity of many, it should be noted those looking for a classic telling of John Henry’s story might be a bit disappointed. However, if you have an open mind and are willing to accept a looser character-based story that fits into the modern world, you will find yourself entertained for 91 minutes.
Now, before digging into the film, it is important to note all the names involved with this project to appreciate it completely. Leading the credits is Will Forbes, a first time writer and director who had a unique vision for this story. Joining him is a pretty awesome list of names. There is the versatile Terry Crews (Everybody Hates Chris series, Brooklyn Nine-Nine series) leading the cast as John Henry; Jamila Velazquez (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit series, Empire series) as Berta, a refugee on the run; Ludacris (Crash 2004, Fast & Furious series) as the ruthless gangster Hell; and Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead 1978, Halloween 2007) as John Henry’s dad, BJ.
A compelling group, on top of it all, it features original music from DJ Quik, who also executive produced the film with Crews and Ludacris. Together, these individuals, along with some other key members, came together on a relatively small budget to create John Henry.
Knowing these facts, it is time to discuss the actual film. You have John Henry, a seemingly gentle man, who grew up amidst gangland in Southern California. Not wanting to get lost in the sauce of it all, he is still haunted by past mistakes into adulthood. As luck would have it, Henry finds Berta, a refugee from Houndras, hiding under his doorstep. Berta, a sweet girl with only the intention of finding her family, is in a sticky situation on the run from a ruthless gang led by a character with a steel jaw named Hell. Offered shelter by John Henry, he and his father BJ do what they can to protect her. That is until everything comes to a boil…
A relatively simple story to follow, what really makes John Henry easy to watch is the performances of the actors/actresses. Crews does a fitting job of portraying a strong, silent Henry who clearly has more beneath the surface than meets the eye. Then there is Velazquez who gives you a chance to connect with Berta on a deeper level, even if you cannot speak her language. Lastly, there if Foree’s BJ, who is a wiser, elder man that seems rough around the edges, but has a good heart underneath it all.
These factors, matched with some quality original tunes by DJ Quik, make John Henry worth the watch. Yes, it is low budget, and perhaps the story could have used a little more developing. However, all involved with the project worked extremely well with what they had to bring it to life. In fact, it would be interesting to see a prequel to John Henry where we are given more backstory about John Henry and his offbeat father BJ. Entertaining, chock-full of good acting, and succeeding at giving a modern twist on an old tale, Cryptic Rock gives John Henry 3.5 out of 5 stars.