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John Henry and the Inky-Poo, the second-to last Puppetoon ever made, is rumored to be a sort of good-willed attempt to make up for the racist stereotypes displayed in the the Jasper series. Pal had a great deal of respect for African-American folklore, feeling that it was "one of the richest [folklores] in the world". John Henry, like the "Uncle Remus" tales, is an example of African-American folklore.
legend of John Henry came about during the railroad boom era of the early 1800s
[please correct me if you can find a better date]. John Henry, according to
legend, "was a steel-driving [Black] man," who could hammer railroad
spikes faster than anyone, and loved it. This Paul Bunyon-esque figure was born
full-sized (over eight feet tall -- ouch!) and went to work on the railroad
in his third week of life. Eventually, John Henry is challenged to compete against
a steel-driving machine, to see who is better, man or machine... John Henry
wins, but collapses, dead, at the finish line. The point is, as John says, a
man can do anything if he puts his mind to it.
"Ain't no machine around can beat a man!"
Certainly, strength against near-impossible odds was an important ideal for African-Americans to maintain at the time the legend was written... depending on when this was written, Emancipation may not have occurred, or may have only occurred recently. Excellence at physical labor was probably the best career opportunity available in a world where education (and an accepting workplace) was rare. A willingness to die for one's principles would be important for the struggle to come.
"John Henry, you can beat that Inky-Poo!"
Pal's film follows the legend (as I remember the legend) very closely. In fact, the only discrepancy that I can think of is that I don't remember the machine being called "The Inky-Poo!" The film is "told" in a folk-lore narrative, which works very well in establishing the mood and validating the semi-fantastic atmosphere.
John Henry wins! But at what cost?
Download a 2.7 meg movie -- HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
The moment of John Henry's death is probably the single most powerful moment I've ever seen in all animation -- his mother screams, and one of his friends turns to the camera and declares, "John Henry's dead!". The timing is perfect, and it gives me a chill every time.
Shortly after, the narrator breaks in and tells us that John Henry "didn't really die... just stopped livin' in his Mammy's shack, and started livin' in the hearts of men, forever and a day." (This is a condensed version...)
Download a sound file of the uncondensed final narration (809K, AU format)
The Inky Poo, some pictures of the model and set from Mark Milano
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This page was first posted December 1, 1996.