The USC School of Cinematic Arts will remove an exhibit devoted to actor John Wayne, a USC student and football player in the 1920s, after months of insistence from students denouncing the Hollywood star’s on-the-record racism and the portrayal of Indigenous Americans in many of his films.
The removal was announced today by Evan Hughes, the school’s Assistant Dean of Diversity & Inclusion.
“Conversations about systemic racism in our cultural institutions along with the recent global, civil uprising by the Black Lives Matter Movement require that we consider the role our School can play as a change maker in promoting antiracist cultural values and experiences,” said Hughes in a statement. “Therefore, it has been decided that the Wayne Exhibit will be removed.”
The exhibit’s material – posters, movie memorabilia, personal items – will now be housed in the school’s Cinematic Arts Library for research and scholarship, along with other Hollywood artifacts.
The Wayne Exhibit was installed in 2012. Students and alumni began protesting the exhibit last October, and in December school officials attempted to transform the display with a more expansive approach to examining cinema’s depiction of the American West. A large case of the exhibit was removed, and displays were expanded to include elements of Indigenous filmmaking, feminism and critical race theory, according to the school’s Daily Trojan newspaper.
Last fall, a student unveiled a banner on campus reading “By keeping Wayne’s legacy alive, SCA is endorsing white supremacy.”
Much of the reconsideration of Wayne’s status in Hollywood history began several years ago when a 1971 interview in Playboy magazine resurfaced on the Internet and went viral. In the interview, Wayne addressed race relations by saying, in part, “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.”
Wayne, who died of cancer in 1979, spoke of casting Black actors in movies by noting, “If it’s supposed to be a black character, naturally I use a black actor. But I don’t go so far as hunting for positions for them. I think the Hollywood studios are carrying their tokenism a little too far.” He also said, “I don’t feel guilty about the fact that five or 10 generations ago these people were slaves.”
As for the historic treatment of Indigenous Americans, Wayne said, “There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”
The actor’s racist attitudes were cited last month by the Democratic Party of Orange County in its resolution to revert the name of the John Wayne Airport to its original Orange County Airport.
In response to the airport resolution, Ethan Wayne, the actor’s son and president of John Wayne Enterprises, released a statement to Fox News saying, “Let me make one thing clear — John Wayne was not a racist. I know that term is casually tossed around these days, but I take it very seriously. I also understand how we got to this point. There is no question that the words spoken by John Wayne in an interview 50 years ago have caused pain and anger. They pained him as well, as he realized his true feelings were wrongly conveyed.
“The truth is, as we have seen in papers from his archives, he did not support ‘white supremacy’ in any way and believed that responsible people should gain power without the use of violence. Those who knew him, knew he judged everyone as an individual and believed everyone deserved an equal opportunity. He called out bigotry when he saw it. He hired and worked with people of all races, creeds, and sexual orientations. John Wayne stood for the very best for all of us — a society that doesn’t discriminate against anyone seeking the American dream.”
Wayne, a movie star whose career spanned five decades, was an outspoken conservative and harsh critic of what would become known as The New Hollywood. In the ’71 interview, he used a gay slur to describe the characters in Midnight Cowboy.