A Top California Film School Plans to Remove an Exhibit Honoring Actor John Wayne After His White Supremacist Comments Resurfaced

Officials in nearby Orange County have also voted to remove the late actor's name and likeness from the local airport.

A statue of John Wayne is on display beneath an American flag in John Wayne Airport, located in Orange County, on June 28, 2020 in Santa Ana, California. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images.

The University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts plans to remove a controversial exhibit dedicated to John Wayne. The move comes in response to student- and activist-led protests over the late actor’s remarks about Black Americans, Native peoples, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

A long-running push to remove the display was reignited last fall, after a 1971 interview Wayne conducted with Playboy magazine resurfaced online and promptly sparked outrage. Last December, administrators at the film school decided that instead of “fully remove[ing]” the exhibit, they would expand it to tell a larger story about the American West in cinema, weaving in research from feminist and race theory scholars as well as research on Indigenous filmmakers.

But the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement—which has spurred both public and private institutions to reexamine everything from the names of their buildings (and sports teams) to their hiring practices—has led the school to take more decisive measures. The Wayne exhibit will now be taken down in its entirety before the onset of the fall semester.

“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,” USC assistant dean of diversity and inclusion Evan Hughes said in a statement. “Therefore, it has been decided that the Wayne exhibit will be removed.” 

USC's School of Cinematic Arts. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The announcement goes on to explain that the material in the exhibit, including a statue of the actor as well as his personal belongings, will be placed in the school’s library archive for the “purpose of research and scholarship.”

Wayne’s Playboy interview included racist comments about both white supremacy and colonization. “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility,” said the actor, who was known for his role in Western films and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. “I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.”

“I don’t feel guilty about the fact that five or 10 generations ago these people were slaves,” he added in another passage. He also used a slur in reference to the gay characters in the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy and stated that he didn’t feel bad that Native Americans had the land of “this great country” taken away from them.

The school isn’t the only venue in the area grappling with Wayne’s legacy. In June, Democrats in Orange County passed an emergency resolution calling for the name of the local John Wayne Airport to be changed to the Orange County Airport and for a statue memorializing the actor on the premises to be removed.

A vote to pass the resolution is now in the hands of the county’s board of supervisors. 

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