‘John Henry’: Is the Netflix Film Based On a True Story?

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness may have taken over the world in recent weeks. But the latest film storming Netflix is the 2020 action thriller John Henry.

Starring Terry Crews, it tells the story of an ex-gang member who gets sucked back into his old lifestyle when two immigrant children ask for his help in escaping his old crew. Since its recent release on the platform, John Henry has surged in popularity and consistently ranks in the top 10 productions.

Based on the general idea of the movie, it might seem possible that it could be based on real-life events. But is it really? Here’s what to know about John Henry.

Terry Crews at an event in November 2018
Terry Crews at an event in November 2018 | Gareth Cattermole/MTV 2018 /Getty Images Europe

The story of ‘John Henry’

In the opening scene, an immigrant kid named Emilio (Joseph Julian Soria) rescues his cousin Berta (Jamila Velazquez) from gang members who had kidnapped her and forced her into the sex trade.

After Emilio kills the group, he and Berta take off but get separated in a police chase. Berta then stumbles upon John Henry, who has renounced his past and lives quietly in southern Los Angeles. He takes her in and gives her shelter while figuring out what to do next.

When Emilio comes back to retrieve Berta, John Henry urges them to leave the city to avoid retaliation. Fearing that still won’t save them, he goes and tries to reason with the gang leader, Hell (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), who happens to be his own cousin.

Hell agrees not to harm the two as long as they leave town within 24 hours. But he reneges on his promise, breaking into John Henry’s home and going on a shooting spree that leaves Emilio and John Henry’s father dead. As John Henry lies on the floor bleeding from a gunshot wound, Hell kidnaps Berta and takes her back to his headquarters.

When John recovers, he goes to find his cousin, taking along a sledgehammer — his weapon of choice. After arriving at Hell’s home, John Henry is critically wounded by one of Hell’s henchman, but he manages to get the upper hand and bludgeons Hell to death with the hammer. Before succumbing to his own injuries, he sees Berta reunite with her family and run away to safety.

John Henry is not based on a true story

But it is based on a folklore hero of the same name. As the story goes, according to the National Park Service, Henry worked on a railroad in the 1870s after earning his freedom following the American Civil War.

He was said to be one of the strongest workers — so much that he even beat a powerful drill designed to drill holes “faster than any man.” However, he died after accomplishing the feat.

Historians have speculated that the tale is indeed based on a railroad worker. Among them is author Scott Reynolds Nelson, who dove into the tale in his 2006 book, Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend.

But we may never really know. In the meantime, you can stream John Henry now on Netflix.