‘John Henry’ Producers on Netflix Hit and Dwayne Johnson Controversy – Variety4 min read
Producers behind the Terry Crews micro-budget drama “John Henry” are taking a victory lap this week, as their film has found an exhilarating second life and wide viewership on Netflix.
In a period that saw dominance from the second season of the Christina Applegate series “Dead to Me,” and stiff feature competition from the Michelle Obama documentary “Becoming” and the continued reign of Chris Hemsworth’s “Extraction,” the Crews film stood tallest — rating as the number one movie on Netflix this Wednesday, according to the platform’s own top ten list.
“John Henry” comes from debut writer-director Will Forbes, and producers Maurice Fadida, Eric B. Fleischman and Brian Kavanaugh-Jones. UTA Independent Film Group sold the project to L.A.-based Saban Films last year, which bowed in a quiet limited theatrical run in January.
Early this week, Fadida and Fleischman noticed only in browsing the Netflix app that their film had become available. Then the messages started pouring in.
“It’s common that the distributor will release the film to SVOD and not notify you immediately. But then people started texting us saying, ‘Hey, you’re number five! Number two! Number one!” Fleischman told Variety, admitting he and Fadida were “baffled.”
The project is based on the John Henry of folklore, an African American man known for his incredible strength. Many versions of the story, interpreted most often in music and literature, have been told since the 1800s at the birth of the American railroads. Henry was said to have been more adept at hammering steel than any machine, and the tool became his symbol.
Crews plays a character inspired by, or perhaps an emotional “descendant” of, the mythical John Henry, producers said. Crews’ Henry had a violent gang life in his youth in South Central Los Angeles, only to swear it off and internalize his intense well of strength as an adult. A gang kingpin played by Ludacris has different ideas.
Fleischman met Forbes, a composer by trade, while he was still in school and developing this world.
“He grew up in upstate New York. When he moved to L.A., he lived in the Crenshaw area, and all of his friends became or were gang members, current or former. He found himself in this world and hearing these folklore stories,” said Fleischman.
Fadida said Forbes insisted on authenticity, and “brought his friends from the hood to set certain scenes, because he wanted the realest real.”
Judging by social media reactions, the film brings an authentic grit and an unexpectedly subdued turn from Crews.
“Ultimately, if we were to distill the success, the movie is entertaining for a broad scope of people. I think that’s why it rushed to the top,” said Fleischman.
Both producers, Fadida of Kodiak Pictures and Fleischman of Defiant Studios, find the success encouraging as indie filmmakers. That a film like “John Henry” could achieve such heights proves that Netflix can be a place of discovery for titles not fronted by Marvel stars and premium budgets, with over 182 million subscribers worldwide to boot, they said.
“We were very happy to see this platform democratized. We are not a Netflix original, and this was a micro-budget movie with zero marketing dollars behind it,” said Fadida.
The pair were meant to take the film to Cannes before the coronavirus pandemic hit and seek foreign buyers, as Saban only took North American rights on the property. Given its success on Netflix, it is feasible the streamer could scoop up worldwide rights and dub the film for its global audience — though an interesting wrench comes in the form of a parallel project the studio is developing with Dwayne Johnson.
Announced in the fall of 2018, Johnson and his “Jumanji” director Jake Kasdan have a take on the character called “John Henry and the Statesmen,” which aims to be a franchise starter populated with folklore characters. News that Johnson would himself play John Henry was met with backlash, given the character is a dark-skinned black man.
“A lot of the positive comments have been about Terry playing a dramatic role that he normally wouldn’t play,” Fleischman noted, “and from a cultural perspective, him being the correct casting for John Henry instead of someone like The Rock.”
Representatives for Johnson did not immediately return Variety‘s request for comment. Netflix did not immediately comment on exploring worldwide rights on Forbes’ film.
Given their overwhelming week, the producers said sequel talks with Forbes have yet to take shape though they can easily see “a world where John Henry’s hammer goes on.”
The men were set to reunite on the thriller “The Knocking,” whose start date has been pushed due to COVID-19. At the Cannes virtual market this year, they’ll also sell the would-be SXSW 2020 player “Witch Hunt,” and the genre thriller “Phobias.”