Review: ‘F9,’ starring Vin Diesel, John Cena, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, Nathalie Emmanuel and Jordana Brewster

June 25, 2021

by Carla Hay

Michelle Rodriguez and Vin Diesel in “F9” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“F9”

Directed by Justin Lin

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, Spain, the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, Azerbaijan and the nation of Georgia, the action flick “F9” features a racially diverse cast of characters (black, white, Latino and Asian) representing the middle-class and wealthy in law enforcement and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A daredevil team tries to save the world from a group of criminals that includes an assassin who is the estranged brother of the daredevil leader. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to fans of the “Fast and the Furious” movie franchise, “F9” (the ninth movie in the series) will appeal primarily to people who want to a predictable action flick with high-budget stunts and low-quality screenwriting.

Pictured in front, from left to right: Vin Diesel, Thue Ersted Rasmussen and John Cena in “F9” (Photo courtesy of Unviersal Pictures)

At this point, movies in the “Fast” movie franchise (which began with 2001’s “The Fast and the Furious”) are no longer rooted in reality and have become over-the-top spectacles for people who want to shut their brains off for a couple of hours while they watch. And that’s okay, if there’s a coherent plot and the stunts are truly creative. But “F9” (the ninth film in the series) is an example of a sequel that’s too bloated, too self-satisfied and too lazy. This movie needed less stunt casting and more impressive stunts that don’t insult people’s intelligence.

Directed by Justin Lin (who co-wrote the abysmal “F9” screenplay with Daniel Casey), “F9” is best described as a live-action movie written and directed like a sloppy cartoon for people with no attention span and no expectations to see an intriguing thriller beyond predictable chase scenes, shootouts and explosions. It’s another “we have to save the world from a power-hungry villain” story, but there’s no real creativity or suspense in this overstuffed, 145-minute movie that tries to distract viewers from the weak plot by zipping around the world to different locations. Too bad with all that globetrotting in search of the villain, the “F9” team couldn’t find anything resembling a suspenseful story, because almost every twist and turn can be easily predicted.

The main characters in the “Fast” saga have become so egotistical and conceited that there are multiple times in the movie where they wonder out loud to each other if their death-defying luck might be because they aren’t mere mortals but might in fact have superpowers. “F9” is not a superhero movie, although it would be a better explanation for some of the ridiculous outcomes of battles where real human beings would die, but these “heroes” just get injuries that are never fatal and they recover in ways that are too quick to believe.

And this wouldn’t be a “Fast” movie without constant use of the word “family.” It can become a drinking game to take a drink every time the word “family” is said in a “Fast” movie. This time around, “F9” is especially enamored with adding more people to the “family,” with some unnecessary stunt casting that looks very out of place. If “F9” is the first movie that people see in the “Fast” series, they might be a little confused, because the movie assumes that viewers will already know a lot of the characters’ backstories. It’s best to watch 2017’s “The Fate of the Furious,” because most of the main characters in that movie are in “F9.”

Here’s a handy summary of who’s in the movie and how their screen time is used in “F9.”

The Heroes

  • Dominic “Dom” Toretto (played by Vin Diesel) is the leader of the daredevil crew that started out as outlaw drag racers and now have vague duties a security/spy team hired to help out government officials and elite business people who are targets of villains who want to take over the world. Vinnie Bennett portrays a young Dom in the movie’s several flashbacks to when Dom was in his late teens.
  • Letty Ortiz (played by Michelle Rodriguez) is Dom’s on-again, off-again girlfriend. In “F9,” Dom and Letty are happily living together with Dom’s son Brian, who’s about 4 or 5 years old in this movie. Brian’s mother Elena Neves (played by Elsa Pataky) was a Diplomatic Security Service agent who died in “The Fate of the Furious.”
  • Mia Toretto (played by Jordana Brewster) is Dom’s loyal younger sister who goes along with whatever Dom wants. Mia is the love partner of Dom’s best friend Brian O’Conner (played by Paul Walker), who is the father of their son Jack. Walker died in real life in 2013, but Brian is supposed to be happily retired.
  • Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) is a nervous and talkative member of Dom’s team. The running joke with Roman is that he’s always anxious about getting into dangerous situtations. Expect Roman to scream at least twice in every “Fast” movie.
  • Tej Parker (played by Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) is Roman’s level-headed best friend who has skills as a mechanic and a computer technician.
  • Ramsey (played by Nathalie Emmanuel) is a British computer hacker who has essentially taken over from Tej as being the “computer whiz” on Dom’s team.
  • Han Lue (played by Sung Kang) supposedly died in 2013’s “Fast & Furious 6,” but he makes a notable but brief return in “F9.” Han’s return is not spoiler information, since it’s part of this movie’s publicity, and his re-appearance has this explanation: He faked his own death.

The Villains

  • Otto (played by Thue Ersted Rasmussen), a wealthy German mogul with vast political connections who wants to take over the world.
  • Jakob Toretto (played by John Cena), Dom’s estranged younger brother, who works with Otto as Otto’s top assassin. Finn Cole portrays a young Jakob in his late teens in the movie’s flashback scenes.
  • Cypher (played by Charlize Theron), a cyberterrorist who was the chief villain in “The Fate of the Furious.” In “F9,” she spends most of her screen time literally locked up in a glass cage.

The Rest

  • Sean (played by Lucas Black), Twinkie (played by Shad Moss, also known as Bow Wow) and Santos (played by Don Omar) are three mechanics who are in the movie mostly for comic relief. They’re like the Three Stooges of the “Fast” movie franchise.
  • Mr. Nobody (played by Kurt Russell) is a powerful undercover operative who works with Dom’s team. A plane hijacking involving Mr. Nobody sets off the rescue mission in the movie.
  • Elle (played by Anna Sawai) is an associate of Han’s who plays a key role in this mission.
  • Stasiak (played by Shea Whigham) is an FBI agent who works with Mr. Nobody.
  • Buddy (played by Michael Rooker) is a mechanic who raised Jakob after Jakob’s father died.
  • Queenie Shaw (played by Helen Mirren) is the mother of Deckard Shaw (played by Jason Statham), a longtime nemesis of Dom’s team.

Through a distress video found in Mr. Nobody’s hijacked plane, Dom and his team find out that Jakob was one of the chief people behind the hijacking. Otto and Jakob are after a device called Aries, which has the ability to hack into defense and banking systems around the world. It’s the type of device that any self-respecting villain with world domination goals would want to have.

Aries has been split into two. Jakob and Otto have one half of Aries, and they’re in a race against time with Dom and his team to get the other half of Aries. Cypher is being held captive by Otto and Jakob, who try to get her advice on how to find Aries and thwart Dom and his team. The stakes are more personal for Dom and Jakob because of their family feud.

The origin of this brotherly vendetta is shown through flashbacks. It has to do with the death of Dom and Jakob’s father Jack Toretto (played by JD Pardo), who died during a car race witnessed by Dom and Jakob. Siena Agudong plays a young Mia in these flashbacks.

Various parts of Dom’s team travel to different parts of the world to find the missing half of Aries. Cardi B has a very quick cameo as Leysa, someone from Dom’s past. People might laugh when they see what type of role she has in this movie. (No, she isn’t a stripper.) Along the way, Roman and Tej go into space using a rocket car that was built by Sean, Twinkie and Santos. Now, try say all of that out loud with a straight face.

The Pontiac Fiero that goes into space (by having a cheap-looking rocket launcher attached) is the most ridiculous part of this movie’s dumb plot. But to the movie’s credit, “F9” even knows how stupid this space rocket car gimmick is, because Roman and Tej keep saying while they’re in outer space that they have no idea what they’re doing there. In real life, Roman and Tej would also be dead in space, based on the flimsy-looking spacesuits they wear in this movie. But when a movie is self-aware of how idiotic it is, it doesn’t make the idiocy any better.

There are many examples of how “F9” is wasteful, including how it squanders the great talent of Oscar-winning actresses Mirren and Theron. Mirren’s Queenie character (who is a jewel thief) literally does nothing in the movie but drive Dom somewhere after she’s committed a jewelry heist. The movie makes a point of showing how Queenie is wearing animal print boots underneath her elegant gown and high-priced jewelry. Mirren might as well have been wearing a T-shirt that says, “I’m Just Here for the Paycheck.”

Theron spends most of her “F9” screen time as a prisoner in a glass cage, which is the type of cage that people have for large animals. And speaking of sexist depictions of women, the movie has a mansion party scene where only modelesque, scantily clad women wearing white are gathered on the front lawn, as if they’re only there to be sex objects on display. “F9” villain Otto is the host of the party, so “F9” filmmakers can shift the blame to the evil character being responsible for objectifying women. But it just comes across as director Lin deciding to objectify women in this scene just because he could.

Of course, Letty, Mia and Ramsey all embody what it means to be good and strong women. But make no mistake: The men are in charge in these movies. No matter how much Letty, Mia and Ramsey are given to do, all three women are ultimately under Dom’s leadership. So much for female empowerment.

“F9” is one of the worst of the “Fast” franchise because even the chief villain Otto is forgettable and badly written. He comes across as a spoiled wimp, with the wardrobe of a dorky playboy, including wearing tacky leisure suits with loafers and no socks. There’s absolutely nothing scary about Otto. However, look for Statham’s Shaw character to make a mid-credits cameo in “F9.” Statham’s appearance is a reminder of how much better this movie series is when it has a truly menacing villain.

As for Jakob, he’s all brawn and very little brain, just like many characters Cena tends to play in action movies. The flashback scenes take up a lot of time and some could easily have been cut out of the film and still made their point. Diesel continues to display wooden acting. The rest of the cast members are serviceable in their roles. The movie’s flashbacks serve as the emotional core of the over-used theme in “Fast” movies: family.

And the return of Han doesn’t happen until the last third of the movie. The not-very-believable explanation for Han’s “return from the dead” is so cringeworthy, even actor Kang seems a little embarrassed to utter the lines. You’d have to believe that Han (who supposedly died in a car explosion) had a similar-looking replacement corpse nearby before the car exploded, and that he was not only able to jump out of the car in time but also put another corpse in the car instead. You’d also have to believe that a medical examiner wouldn’t be able to detect through DNA or dental records that Han’s body wasn’t the body that was found in the car.

With all that being said, die-hard fans won’t care how bad “F9” is because they just want to see fight scenes, car chases and explosions. And in that respect, “F9” does deliver, but not as well as previous “Fast” films that Lim directed. He also directed 2006’s “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” 2009’s “Fast & Furious,” 2011’s “Fast Five” and “Fast & Furious 6.” Those other four movies have something that “F9” severely lacks: a story with some genuine and unique surprises, not coasting entirely on past glories.

Universal Pictures released “F9” in U.S. cinemas on June 25, 2021. The movie was released in various other countries, beginning on June 19, 2021.

Review: ‘The Ride’ (2020), starring Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, Shane Graham and Sasha Alexander

February 27, 2021

by Carla Hay

Shane Graham and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges in “The Ride” (Photo courtesy of WSO Film Group/Roadside Attractions)

“The Ride” (2020) 

Directed by Alex Ranarivelo

Culture Representation: Taking place in Northern California and other parts of the U.S., the dramatic film “The Ride” (which is based on a true story) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class, working-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A juvenile delinquent, who was taught to be a white supremacist, is fostered and then adopted by an interracial couple, and he learns that he has a talent for BMX racing.

Culture Audience: “The Ride” will appeal primarily to people interested in real-life stories of redemption, even if it’s told in a very predictable and formulaic way.

Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Sasha Alexander in “The Ride” (Photo courtesy of WSO Film Group/Roadside Attractions)

“The Ride” is a biographical dramatic film that sticks to a certain formula that movies tend to have when they’re about people who’ve been able to overcome a troubled past to achieve some greatness. Based on the true story of professional BMX rider John Buultjens (formerly known as John McCord), “The Ride” takes a while to get to the heart of the story, it soars when it shows John’s transformation, and then it becomes a conventional sports competition by the end of the film. Despite having a lot of expected tropes, the cast members’ performances are appealing enough to make this movie worth checking out if people are looking for an inspirational and uplifting story.

Directed by Alex Ranarivelo, “The Ride” begins in Northern California, where most of the story takes place. John McCord (played by Alexander Davis) is only 9 years old, but he’s already living like an adult hoodlum. He and his friends have been recruited by a local white supremacist gang to commit crimes. The opening scene shows John and three other boys beating up a hospital security guard (played by Dorian Lockett) and stealing bottles of pills. But that’s not enough for these delinquents. They also brand the guard, who is African American.

John is caught and put in a juvenile detention center, where he kicks his cellmate Jose (played by Mario Gianni Herrera) just because Jose is Latino. And then, in a classroom at the detention center, three African American boys find out that John has a swastika tattooed on his neck, so the boys attack John. These scenes obviously show that a lot of John’s problems have to do with his racist beliefs.

Why did he turn out this way? John’s two older brothers Rory McCord (played by Richard Davis as a 14-year-old and Blake Sheldon as an adult) and Ewan McCord (played by the real-life John Buultjens) are both in the white supremacist gang which has become their surrogate family. John has an absentee father, while John’s mother Maggie McCord (played by Christina Moore) is a drug addict who’s been in and out of prison.

Maggie considers John to be a nuisance and refuses his pleas to let him live with her when he gets out of juvenile detention. While John is incarcerated, Maggie ends up dying from a drug-induced heart attack, essentially leaving John and his brothers as orphans. Seven years after being imprisoned, John (played by Shane Graham) is finally let out when he’s 16 years old, but he’s a very emotionally damaged person.

As a ward of the state, John is put in the foster care system. And the foster home he’s sent to live in is a nightmare for a white supremacist: Eldridge Buultjens (played by Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Marianna Buultjens (played by Sasha Alexander) are an interracial married couple. Eldridge is African American, and Marianna is white. They’ve had no luck in trying to start a biological family, so they’ve decided to try foster parenting instead.

When John is taken to Eldridge and Marianna’s upper-middle-class home for the first time, he immediately assumes that Eldridge must be a rapper or athlete to be able to afford this house. John is surprised to learn that Eldridge, who’s originally from Kentucky, has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. Eldridge and Marianna met when they were grad students at the University of California at Berkeley. She has a master’s degree in linguistics.

Marianna and Eldridge know about John’s upbringing as a white supremacist, but they wanted to foster him anyway. When John asks them why they chose him, Eldridge says that Marianna felt that their family wouldn’t feel complete without a child. Of course, John’s bigoted beliefs cause problems in his difficulty adjusting to his new home.

There are the expected scenes of him being rude and uncooperative. And he constantly spouts racist assumptions. For example, during his first dinner with Eldridge and Marianna in their home, John assumes that he’s going to be served collard greens, which is a traditional African American meal.

John is enrolled in El Dorado High School shortly after the school year has begun. But he’s a misfit in the school, where cliques have already been formed. On his first day of school, John sees some BMX riders outside who are fellow students. One of them makes fun of John because of the shoes that John is wearing.

After school lets out for the day, the bully and his friends find the wheels removed from their BMX bikes that were parked outside. John is immediately accused of this vandalism. Police go to the Buultjens house to question John, but no arrest is made because there’s no proof of who committed the crime.

However, Eldridge is no fool, and he lectures John by telling him that he won’t tolerate any criminal activities. Eldridge also makes it clear that John has been given a chance to turn his life around, and John better not ruin it. John asks Eldridge again why he was chosen to be in this foster family: “Why me? Why not a good kid?” Eldridge replies, “Everybody deserves a second chance.”

It isn’t long before John discovers something about Eldridge that explains why Eldridge didn’t mind taking in a troubled kid with a criminal background. Slowly but surely, John warms up to his new family. When Eldridge finds out that John might be interested in BMX bike riding, Eldridge not only teaches John how to ride a bike but he also buys John a BMX bike.

The rest of the story goes how most people would expect it to go. As John begins to become better-adjusted in school and his BMX talent begins to blossom, he eventually starts to enter competitions. It’s not smooth sailing, since he gets rejected more than once, but he’s persistent in pursuing his goals. John’s racist older brothers find out that John is living with interracial foster parents, so they come back into his life and cause trouble.

“The Ride” director Ranarivelo co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Hadeel Reda, J.R. Reher and Jean-Marie Sobeck. “The Ride” is a fairly solid film, but ironically, the BMX competition scenes that are supposed to be the most exciting are actually not as interesting as they should be. Maybe that’s because there are obvious stunt doubles which detract from these BMX scenes trying to look realistic. The best parts of the movie undoubtedly have to do with John’s expected redemption arc.

Bridges’ performance as Eldridge is at times a little stiff, but he and Alexander are convincing overall as caring foster parents, while Graham turns in a capable performance as teenage John. “The Ride” isn’t an award-worthy movie, but it efficiently serves its purpose for being a positive and life-affirming story that people of many generations can enjoy.

Amazon Prime Video premiered “The Ride” on November 13, 2020.

Saving Our Selves: A BET COVID-19 Relief Effort to include participation from Kelly Rowland, Terrence J, Regina Hall, DJ Khaled, Chance the Rapper, Kirk Franklin and more

April 8, 2020

Updated April 17, 2020

The following is a press release from BET:

BET announces an array of high impact initiatives to support communities of color impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Black Americans are being disproportionately harmed by the health and financial devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. BET, in partnership with the NAACP, United Way Worldwide, leaders in the African American creative, civil rights and business communities will provide critical financial, educational and community support directly to the African Americans hardest hit by this crisis.

These initiatives include the “Saving Our Selves: A BET COVID-19 Relief Effort” broadcast special; the creation of a relief fund in partnership with United Way Worldwide to assist people of color most impacted by this health and financial crisis, and our support of the NAACP’s Town Hall Series.

For 40 years, BET has been rooted in a legacy of helping afflicted communities of color, raising $12 million for Katrina victims and millions more for Haiti earthquake victims.  In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, BET will use their global platform to provide critical educational and financial resources directly related to the African American community.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is savagely compounding the profound health and financial vulnerabilities many Black Americans face. Every day, there are new reports of how this pandemic is killing African Americans at much higher rates than other communities.” said Scott Mills, President of BET.  “BET is using all of our resources – our capital, our media platforms, our relationships with the creative community, sponsors, businesses and charitable organizations to support our community in this time of crisis.”

The “Saving Our Selves: A BET COVID-19 Relief Effort” broadcast special, will air on Wednesday, April 22nd at 8 pm EST. The special, co-hosted by Grammy Award-Winning singer and actress Kelly Rowland, TV personality Terrence J, and actress Regina Hall; will feature virtual appearances and musical performances from some of the biggest names in music and entertainment as they share tips on how to manage, cope and help during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. Celebrity guest appearances and performances will include DJ Khaled, Charlie Wilson, Chance the Rapper, Kirk Franklin, Fantasia, Melvin Crispell III, and many more. The special will give up-to-date information and drive viewers to needed resources during this unprecedented time.  In partnership with United Way, proceeds are being donated to African American communities severely impacted by COVID-19.

“Our goal for this special is to come together in a collective spirit of strength, community and hope. As we unite in harmony and compassion, through the collective healing power of music, comedy and entertainment, we can bring restoration and inspire the world that our brighter days are ahead,” said Connie Orlando, EVP Specials, Music Programming & Music Strategy at BET.

Connie Orlando, EVP Specials, Music Programming & Music Strategy at BET  will serve as Executive Producer for the “Saving Our Selves: A BET COVID-19 Relief Effort” broadcast special along with Jesse Collins, CEO of Jesse Collins Entertainment.

To support these initiatives, BET has established a COVID-19 relief fund in partnership with United Way Worldwide to support African Americans that have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  United Way, the largest private funder of human services in the U.S., has a presence in 95% of communities across the country, and has, for more than 130 years, mobilized the caring power of the community to advance the common good. United Way is unparalleled in its power to convene local partners, providers and resources to address the needs of vulnerable communities on the ground.

Financial donations from the joint fund will allow United Way to disburse resources to local organizations under United Ways in New York City, Atlanta, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Detroit and Chicago, regions that have been most impacted by this crisis.  There are long-term plans to expand these resources to other markets going forward.  In particular, United Way will be supporting families in crisis who are experiencing food insecurity and are in need of emergency assistance.

“United Way is deeply embedded in communities across our country, and our ‘local-ness’ means we know the needs on the ground and how to get the right kind of help to those who need it most,” said Stan Little, Chief Experience Officer of United Way. “We look forward to partnering with BET to bring much-needed relief and long-term recovery to already vulnerable communities that are being hit especially hard because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

BET is also providing resources and content on COVID-19 across multiple digital platforms including a four-part virtual town hall series in partnership with the NAACP.  On Wednesday, April 8, at 8 PM ET/ 5 PM PT, “Unmasked: A COVID-19 Virtual Town Hall Series Powered by NAACP & BET” will stream on NAACP.org and focus on how the pandemic is affecting African Americans and what steps the community can take to build an action plan for positive change. The first town hall will focus on the health, emotional, economic toll, congressional response and how activists can apply pressure to ensure legislation is equitable. Additionally, BET.com is reporting daily on what the African American community needs to know about COVID-19, and how it is impacting our lives.

You can donate to the fund beginning Friday, April 10th.  More information on BET’s partnership with UWW and additional extensions of our relief efforts are forthcoming. For further details, please visit BET.com.

April 17, 2020 UPDATE

Anthony Anderson (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images for VH1)

Today BET announces comedian and actor Anthony Anderson as the fourth host of the upcoming “Saving Our Selves: A BET COVID-19 Relief Effort” special.  Anderson joins stars Kelly Rowland, Terrence J, and Regina Hall as host for the two-hour special broadcast. “Saving Our Selves: A BET COVID-19 Relief Effort” is set to air on Wednesday, April 22, 2020 at 8 PM EST.

Performances include Alicia Keys with a special tribute to New York City, and a Gospel moment with Kirk Franklin featuring Fantasia, Jonathan McReynolds, Kelly Price, Tasha Cobbs, Le’Andria Johnson, and Melvin Crispell III.  Exclusive performances by John Legend, Usher, Jhene Aiko, Chloe X Halle, CeeLo Green, H.E.R., Ella Mai, Jermaine Dupri, Ludacris, Swae Lee, Tyrese Gibson, Buju Banton, DJ D-Nice, SiR, D Smoke, and Charlie Wilson.

Additional celebrity guest appearances will include Tiffany Haddish, Idris Elba, Ciara, Don Cheadle, Mike Epps, Deon Cole, Angela Rye, Dr. Rheeda Walker, Charlamagne Tha God, Symone D. Sanders, DJ Khaled and Chance The Rapper.

Expanding the reach of the telecast, BET will simulcast the special across BET and BET Her domestically, as well as their channels internationally bringing awareness to over 90 million homes.  Additionally, BET will join forces with Bounce to help expand the audience to include free, over-the-air broadcast viewers with Bounce simulcasting “Saving Our Selves: A BET COVID-19 Relief Effort.”

About BET

BET, a subsidiary of ViacomCBS Inc. (NASDAQ: VIACA, VIAC), is the nation’s leading provider of quality entertainment, music, news, and public affairs television programming for the African-American audience. The primary BET channel is in 90 million households and can be seen in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, the United Kingdom, sub-Saharan Africa, and France. BET is the dominant African-American consumer brand with a diverse group of business extensions including BET.com, a leading Internet destination for Black entertainment, music, culture, and news; BET HER, a 24-hour entertainment network targeting the African-American Woman; BET Music Networks – BET Jams, BET Soul and BET Gospel; BET Home Entertainment; BET Live, BET’s growing festival business; BET Mobile, which provides ringtones, games and video content for wireless devices; and BET International, which operates BET around the globe.

About United Way

United Way fights for the health, education and financial stability of every person in every community. Supported by 2.9 million volunteers, 9.8 million donors worldwide and $4.7 billion raised every year, United Way is the world’s largest privately funded nonprofit. We’re engaged in 1,800 communities across more than 40 countries and territories worldwide to create sustainable solutions to the challenges facing our communities. United Way partners include global, national and local businesses, nonprofits, government, civic and faith-based organizations, along with educators, labor leaders, health providers, senior citizens, students and more. For more information about United Way, please visit UnitedWay.org. Follow us on Twitter: @UnitedWay and #LiveUnited.

About NAACP
Founded in 1909, the NAACP is the nation’s oldest and largest nonpartisan civil rights organization. Its members throughout the United States and the world are the premier advocates for civil rights in their communities. You can read more about the NAACP’s work and our six “Game Changer” issue areas at naacp.org.

Review: ‘John Henry,’ starring Terry Crews and Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges

January 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Terry Crews in "John Henry"
Terry Crews in “John Henry” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“John Henry”

Directed by Will Forbes

Culture Representation: Set in the Los Angeles suburb of Compton, this male-centric action drama’s cast of characters are almost all African Americans and Latinos from the lower and middle classes.

Culture Clash: The central conflicts are between gang members and the people they want to terrorize.

Culture Audience: “John Henry” is bottom-of-the-barrel blaxploitation that will appeal mostly to people who have a high tolerance for low-quality gangster flicks.

Chris “Ludacris” Bridges in “John Henry” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

Before anyone thinks that the crime drama “John Henry” has anything to do with the story of the African American folk hero John Henry, the first 15 minutes of this laughably horrible film will make it clear that the name is just a gimmick. The John Henry in this film is played by Terry Crews, and the only thing this John Henry has in common with the folk hero is that he likes hammers. (He uses a sledgehammer as a weapon at one point in the movie.) There are no steel workers and no scenes of hard labor in “John Henry,” which takes place entirely in the crime-ridden area of Compton, the Los Angeles suburb made world-famous by rap group N.W.A.

And speaking of rap artists from the Los Angeles area, the entire “John Henry” movie (directed by Will Forbes, who co-wrote the screenplay with Doug Skinner) looks like it was made by people who get their stereotypical ideas of Compton’s African Americans from music videos that N.W.A. made in the ’80s and former N.W.A. member Dr. Dre made in the ’90s. (The only white people in this movie are cops, who are shown briefly after they respond to a shootout.) The movie’s attempt at hip-hop authenticity is to have a soundtrack of songs mostly by DJ Quik, who’s an executive producer of “John Henry.”

Crews has a larger-than-life personality in most of his on-screen roles, but his John Henry character in the movie is a slow-moving, slow-talking, brooding hulk of a man who’s awkward when he’s around other people. John has a generous side, but he isn’t afraid to get rough if necessary. John lives with his father, BJ Henry (played by Ken Foree), a foul-mouthed braggart who’s in a wheelchair and needs oxygen tubes to breathe. John, who’s supposed to be in his late 40s, doesn’t seem to be gainfully employed and he has no friends, so the movie makes it look like he and BJ are living off of BJ’s Social Security and disability payments from the government.

In fact, none of the black men shown in this movie seem to be making an honest living by having steady jobs. The “John Henry” filmmakers are basically fueling the worst racist stereotypes that black men who live in a predominantly black area are non-productive losers who are either criminals or on welfare. One of the reasons why John Singleton’s 1991 drama “Boyz N the Hood” is a well-written, Oscar-nominated classic is because it accurately showed the variety of African Americans who live in South Central Los Angeles (a predominantly black area), as ranging from law-abiding, hard-working citizens to destructive gang bangers.

The 2015 N.W.A. biopic “Straight Outta Compton” (another movie with an Oscar-nominated screenplay) also accurately depicted that not everyone who lives in Compton is poor or a criminal. For example, N.W.A. member Ice Cube came from a stable middle-class home with two married, hard-working parents. “John Henry” was obviously made by people who would never live in a predominantly black neighborhood. It seems like they’ve gotten their narrow, biased views of black people from movies, TV shows and music videos that perpetuate the negative stereotypes (especially about black men) instead of showing the diverse array of people who live in predominantly black areas. “John Henry” is another one of those lazy, ignorant movies that recycles the same bigoted clichés.

The movie shows flashbacks of John’s life as a teenager in the early 1990s, as seen through old home videos. Back then, BJ had high hopes for John, but John joined a gang with John’s cousin, who has the street name Hell. (Rich Morrow plays the young John. Maestro Harrell plays the young Hell, and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges plays the adult Hell.) At some point when John was still a young man, he decided to quit the gang and “thug life” altogether.

When John told Hell about his decision to leave the gang and stop committing crimes, Hell got angry, and the two guys got into a tussle that ended with John accidentally shooting Hell in the face. The gunshot wound left a scar that the adult Hell covers up with an embellished metal plate that looks like it was tossed off of the set of Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” video. The falling out between the two cousins has lasted for all these decades, and John has become Hell’s sworn enemy.

Meanwhile, Hell has risen through the ranks of the gangster world in Compton. He now heads a gang whose signature color is white. This movie is so over-the-top ridiculous that the gang members not only dress entirely in white, but they also wear similar sweatsuits. They don’t look like a menacing gang. They look like they’re about to go to work at a spa.

The gang members have street names such as Savage, Gram, Whack, Mookie, Midnight and Deyday. (All of them are men except for one butch-looking woman.) And when they talk, they say the “n” word every couple of minutes. Women are referred to as “bitches” and almost all of the women around them are involved in prostitution. But what’s really absurd is that while these thugs are talking in Ebonics, they sometimes throw in a few phrases such as “Orwellian rules” and “recidivism.”

It seems like the screenwriters want to pander to stereotypes of black criminals from the ‘hood being uneducated, but then mock them by making the thugs say words that they’re supposedly not smart enough to know. This satire technique would work well if the jokes were funny, but they’re not. The filmmakers show a lot of racial condescension by making all the black people in Compton look like a bunch of idiots, including the neighborhood extras who stand around and gawk on their front lawns while an outdoor shootout is happening nearby in broad daylight and they’re in the line of fire.

The Latinos in the movie are also depicted in negative clichés. Near the beginning of the film, members of the sweatsuit gang are sitting around playing poker and smoking weed when they’re ambushed in a home invasion shootout, where several people end up get killed or injured. The two armed Latino men who’ve barged into the house are small-time drug dealer Emilio (Joseph Julian Soria) and his younger half-brother Oscar (played by Tyler Alvarez), who’ve come to rescue their sister Berta (played by Jamila Velazquez), who’s being held against her will as a prostitute. Berta and Oscar look like they’re in their late teens or early 20s, while Emilio seems to be in his late 20s.

During the melee, Oscar gets shot, while Emilio and Berta run out of the house. Emilio is detained by police, but Berta manages to escape, and she hides underneath John Henry’s front porch. John finds Berta and invites her inside, where he makes her a sandwich and tries to communicate with Berta to get her story, even though she doesn’t really know any English, and John can barely speak Spanish. Luckily, John’s father BJ can understand Spanish more than John can (how convenient), so he acts as a translator. Kind-hearted John offers Berta a place to stay until they can figure out what to do.

John gets somewhat of a love interest in the movie, when he goes to a local drugstore to buy some feminine products for Berta, who’s told him that she’s menstruating. (Yes, it’s that kind of movie.) While John is standing around, looking very confused in the aisle with tampons and sanitary pads, he’s spotted by one of the drugstore employees named Tasha (played by Kimberly Hebert Gregory), a former classmate of his from high school. Tasha is thrilled to see John again, and obviously still has a crush on him. She gets even more excited when she finds out that, just like her, John is also single and doesn’t have any kids. But John, who’s preoccupied with his Berta problem, is oblivious to the love signals that Tasha is sending out, and just like a clueless schmuck, he leaves her hanging.

Somehow, Emilio shows up at the Henrys’ house to retrieve Berta, who’s afraid to leave. And why should she leave? While she’s hiding out, she’s getting free meals and lodging, courtesy of John Henry, and Emilio is going to be a target of the gang members who will be looking for her. Emilio’s sudden appearance at the Henry house is one of many plot holes, because the movie doesn’t explain how Emilio found out that Berta was there. She obviously didn’t call Emilio, because she doesn’t want to leave with him. The movie also never explains what happened after Emilio was stopped by the police who caught him fleeing from the shootout. Adding to the muddled plot, there’s a lot of Spanish dialogue with no subtitles whatsoever.

It turns out that Berta and Oscar are undocumented immigrants who have fled Honduras because they were afraid of being killed by gang members. Oscar and Berta tracked down their half-brother Emilio because he’s the only family member they have in the United States. The three siblings weren’t reunited for very long and were walking down a street together when Berta was abducted by the sweatsuit gang members who were riding by in a van. Because of his involvement in drug dealing, Emilio managed to find out where Berta was being held, so he and Oscar planned the home invasion to break her out of the gang house.

Meanwhile, John’s cousin Hell (who doesn’t wear white, but wears his encrusted facial guard like he thinks he’s some kind of supervillain) wants revenge for the home invasion, and he sends his goons to find out who’s responsible and to get Berta back. It doesn’t take a genius to predict that there’s going to be a showdown between John and Hell.

But before that happens, much of the movie is bogged down with cringeworthy conversations and long silences, mainly because John Henry has such an “arrested development” personality. In other words, “John Henry” is far from a non-stop action movie.  When the action does happen, a lot of it is unrealistic and unimaginative. And the movie even rips off a little bit of the first “John Wick” movie when John Henry’s beloved dog gets killed by a gangster in the opening scene, and there’s a shot of John Henry carrying the dead dog like John Wick did.

“John Henry” reaches the point of no return in stupidity when wheelchair-bound, oxygen-tube-wearing BJ suddenly becomes a gun-toting action hero who can stand up and move around as if he never needed a wheelchair. As an explanation for his improbable physical transformation, BJ quips, “Adrenaline is a hell of a drug!” In another so-dumb-it’s-almost-funny scene, another character survives a bullet wound to the head that knocked him unconscious for quite some time, but then he was able to get up with all of his motor skills intact. And what’s one of the first things he does after experiencing this trauma? Get medical treatment? No. He shaves.

“John Henry,” for all of its flaws, would be a more watchable film if it at least delivered thrilling action. Instead, just like the title character, “John Henry” is a little too slow, empty-headed and predictable to make it worthwhile to see for some campy entertainment.

Saban Films released “John Henry” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and on VOD on January 24, 2020.