Racist Political Correctness, Casting Ethics, Double Standards, And The Rock

Oh look, another racist “you’re not black enough” casting controversy!

(Here was a previous one…)

Dwayne Johnson, the action hero known as The Rock, announced last week that he’ll be producing and starring in the film “John Henry and the Statesmen” about the black folk hero who died after defeating a steam-driven machine that supposedly would lay track faster than human beings could. Johnson, one of the top drawing box-office stars in 2017 and 2016, said John Henry was one of his “childhood heroes” and that his father, former pro wrestler Rocky Johnson, used to sing “Big John” to him before he put him to sleep as a kid.

Well, I don’t understand the “Big John” reference at all. The Jimmy Dean hit (yes, the sausage guy) was about a mine worker who dies saving his colleagues in a cave-in, and there was nothing in the song suggesting he was black, just BIG, like Dwayne Johnson. Here’s the song…

But I digress…

Critics are saying that The Rock, who is certainly big enough to play John Henry,  isn’t black enough for the part (he’s half black, half Samoan). One wrote on social media, “John Henry was a very dark skin man & yes that matters.”

Psst! John Henry had no skin at all: he was a fictional character. If a black actor can play James Bond, and Morgan Freeman can play the the Arab horse-breeder in “Ben-Hur” (not to mention somehow showing up in “Robin Hood” and playing God) and Will Smith can play Jim West in “The Wild,Wild, West,”  and Lin Manuel Miranda can play Alexander Hamilton, and a black actor—named Joshua Henry, ironically— can sing the role of white carnival barker Billy Bigelow in “Carousel” on Broadway—and they all can and should—then Dwayne Johnson can certainly play John Henry. He could also play Big Bad John.

And social justice warriors wonder why political correctness is unpopular…

Heeeeere’s John Henry

…as sung by the great Burl Ives!

22 thoughts on “Racist Political Correctness, Casting Ethics, Double Standards, And The Rock

      • That’s because there wasn’t one. Old Robin’s story has been through any number of permutations over the years, including placing him in Barnsdale Forest vs. Sherwood, making him a dispossessed nobleman vs. a yeoman who was in trouble with the law, or the law with him, from an early age, and so on. His companions have also varied, including Will Scarlet being a fop or a thug, Much the Miller’s son being borderline retarded, and so on. There was no precedent in any of the legends for an Azeem. He was strictly a way to get Morgan Freeman, and some early political correctness (“Allah loves wondrous variety”) into the 1991 movie.

  1. I always thought John Henry (the legend and the song) was about a hard rock miner who dueled it out with a steam drill. One version I heard had him re-assuring his ‘shaker’ (the guy who held the drill for the first few blows to get it started. It should be obvious why he’s called a ‘shaker’).

    • I knew there were at least two versions of the song, “The Ballad of John Henry,” but I’ve so far found dozens more online, most of them having umpteen verses, and a work-song rhythm – the most basic of which my 7-year-old self stomped in that driving stop-rhythm around the classroom (chanting?), with that hammer-driving oomph! at the end of each line, to lyrics like “gonna die with the hammer in mah han’, Lord, Lord”.

      For what it’s worth, a “real” John Henry is pretty well authenticated in at least one version of the story, ending fatally at the C&O’s Big Bend Tunnel in Talcott, West Virginia.

      From KPBS’ “The African-American Railroad Experience”, built on Theodore Kornweibel’s photographic history: The entire southern railroad network built during the slavery era was built almost exclusively by slaves. Some of the railroads owned slaves, other hired or rented from slave owners [later from contracted freedmen or convict work-gangs]. And. . . women as well as men were actually involved in the hard, dangerous, brutal work. … several of the song versions finish with John Henry telling his wife to pick up the hammer and continue the job.

      Negative evidence of Henry’s race would be that none of the many, many verses of the songs (recorded by 38 singers besides Ives) nor folk references – negro dialect aside (arguably stretched to “Suthun,”) – refer to that figure as being other than black. And as a black man, and a real, live “Everyman” working-man’s hero, he is proudly and fiercely claimed by South Carolina, Alabama, Virginia, Georgia, Kentucky . . . and Jamaica.

      Of particular interest are “the rebel verses,” 12 challenging the “Cap’n of the Sexion Line” to quit beating him, and 11 more on “complaints” detailing the poor working conditions of the steeldrivers.


      and my favorite: Johnny Cash’s patter-song-bio of John Henry, all 8 1/2 minutes of it:

  2. I like Odetta’s version of John Henry best; I listen to it every time I see or hear a reminder about the song.
    Odetta – John Henry

    But, on topic, I’ve been tired of PC for over a decade but it’s gotten progressively worse. (no pun intended)

  3. Having seen and heard (again, for the first time in a long time) Jimmy Dean performing “Big Bad John,” I would appreciate it, if all of today’s African-American and African-anyone-and-everyone-else rap artists would kindly get woke and fork over all their earnings to Jimmy’s estate, for that now so familiar and obvious crime of appropriation. Hell, Jimmy even included a key change in his rap! A true artist! Shame, SHAME on today’s deliberately musically challenged, raaaaacist appropriators!

    • Great catch on the “first to rap” story! I had previously called it for C.W. McCall’s 1975 hit “Convoy,” during the C.B. radio craze, but had forgot about “Big Bad John.” Obviously Jimmy Dean had him by over a decade. Appropriators indeed!

        • Hmmm… I’m actually going to call this one close, but no cigar. My entry into the first rap category goes to Meredith Willson’s opening number in “The Music Man,” released in 1957, compared to Jimmy Dean’s 1959 hit. “Rock Island” features the traveling salesmen in what can only be described today as a rap. (This link is from the 1962 movie)

          • Keith Walker, you might be right. That number from “The Music Man” is a fair contender for First Rap. The train-ride basis for the rhythm is especially fitting.

            But, there are possible others. We must humbly search farther back in time, before we can be sure. Much farther.

            Depending on whether anyone set them to any kind of sound that can almost universally be agreed upon is “music,” we might discover that First Rap was “Casey At the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer (1880). Or, perhaps, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1860). Or even, “The Raven,” by Edgar Allan Poe (1845),…or perhaps one of Poe’s other works.

            More likely, I reckon, First Rap occurred with some less popular or well-known, and older, verse. And the groups rapping that verse were marching troops, or prisoners, or slaves in ships’ cargo holds, or young children, even slave children.

            I would not be surprised if a claim arose that the sturdy and competent rowing Vikings did First Rap – and the peoples whom the Vikings conquered appropriated it, the thieving bastards. Still, Whitey can’t own the origin of rap indisputably just yet…

            People sang in groups more often back in the 19th century. Well, white people groups did, anyway. Those Poe, Longfellow and Thayer verses would have required long, hard, devoted work to get all the way through them with some musical accompaniment. But, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t done…

            Every time I hear or recall C.W. McCall’s “Convoy” (LOVED it when it came out! I confess, I was caught-up in CB-mania), I can’t help thinking of Longfellow’s “Midnight Ride.” Men in motion, men of principle, each on a mission (even if ethically divergent). Oh, well…

            Movies of the 1990s are dear to me – like “Jurassic Park,” “Forrest Gump,” and “Dead Poets Society.” DPS has a memorable scene, where a bit of rap is performed, if “nerdily,” that I hold especially dear. I don’t know the vintage of the verse being read. It might be more modern than others I have named. On the other hand, it might be older than all the previously cited works:

            • Now DPS (the movie) has me hooked all over again! I can’t think of any other movie at this (glorious!) moment.

              Here is another scene from DPS that I can’t resist sharing – reminds me of our goofy initiatives, our nocturnal missions (pHAH!! I just made myself gush a laugh.) in military school…

              All right. I gotta go seize the NIGHT – ASLEEP.

              • Jack: please help. That video of the naked ladies that I just posted is as randomly bizarre and puzzling as anything I have ever seen invade one of my posts. Obviously, it is NOT a scene from “Dead Poets Society.” Please, if you can, fix this. Please post the following link in its place. Thanks.

  4. Heh, he probably just mixed them up. I am familiar with “Big Bad John” because it’s on the CD dad always has in his truck. I could see a story where you link that to the John Henry story like an american folktale of a man who keeps “dying” only to reappear elsewhere mines and tunnels are in use.

    I like that. Of the 3 american folktale heroes I always thought John Henry needed a bit more spice to his – this could fit (unless I’ve now pulled a Rock and mixed up the characters).

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