Natasha Brennan
Special to Indian Country Today

The University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts on Friday announced its plan to remove its controversial John Wayne exhibit following a 10-month battle between students and administrators. 

In response to recent events and the Black Live Matter movement, the school overturned its 2019 decision to keep the exhibit, and plans to relocate the materials from the main building to the school’s Cinematic Arts Library archives.

“I’m just glad they changed their original decision and have more understanding towards their own role in sprerading racism and white supremacist ideals,” said E Plant, Yaqui, a USC student who led the protest to remove the exhibit. “I’m feeling very happy right now to see that our voices are actually being heard for once.”

The removal of the exhibit comes shortly after the removal of the name of USC’s fifth president, Rufus VonKleinSmid, from one of the campus’s most prominent buildings. On June 11, the university stated that the Rufus VonKleniSmid Center was to be renamed and the bust of the eugenics supporter removed from campus in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.

In February 2019, months before news of the college admissions and George Tyndall scandals put the university under a continuous spotlight, a 1971 Playboy interview with Wayne resurfaced online – causing students to demand the exhibit's removal. 

Despite the seriousness of Wayne’s comments and him unabashedly saying, “I believe in white supremacy,” the school quickly moved on with the scandals that rocked the campus. But for USC students Plant and Reanna Cruz, the exhibit’s existence grew even more bothersome.

The students protested the exhibit with a banner that read, “SCA must remove the John Wayne exhibit. Wayne is a blatant racist. He promotes the genocide of indigenous American peoples. By keeping Wayne’s legacy alive, SCA is endorsing white supremacy,” on Sept. 27. Plant focused on some of Wayne’s most egregious comments about Native Americans and Black people in the Playboy article. Wayne said, “Indians were selfishly trying to keep [land] for themselves” and, “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.”

A movie poster for John Wayne's film "Ombre Rosse" (known as "Stagecoach" in the U.S.) is in the lobby of the cinema school. In the film, Wayne's character crosses through Apache territory in a stagecoach. This is the film many credit with making him famous. (photo by Natasha Brennan)

Though the school did not remove the exhibit last year, it agreed to students’ suggestion of recontextualizing the exhibit with a framed print-out of the infamous Playboy article. However, Plant and Cruz continued to hear from people with opposing views online who said the comments should be considered in context of the time. Cruz recalled one student who stopped by the protest to say the exhibit was just “empty cowboy boots.”

“That’s true, but they wouldn’t be up in our school if they didn’t belong to John Wayne. And because his persona is so directly tied with those cowboy boots, those cowboy boots become a symbol of him, and they become a symbol by extension of racism, white supremacy and the genocide of Native people,” Cruz said.

Some of Wayne’s children have been vocal about his legacy as other monuments with his namesake, like the John Wayne Airport in California, have been protested against.

(Related: Next to fall: John Wayne’s teeth? (Airport and statue too)

“We really want to encourage students to do more research on John Wayne as a whole and not base their opinion on one article, as his actions were nothing like some of the words in a single interview,” Wayne’s son Ethan Wayne said in response to the USC student protests. “He hired, worked with and was friends with people of all races, religions, politics and sexual orientations. His three wives were Hispanic. He believed everyone should have equal opportunities, and if they were willing to work hard they should have the opportunity to succeed.”

The Wayne family has a long history of supporting USC, where John Wayne attended on a football scholarship, but never graduated. 

In 1982, Wayne’s family donated a bust of the actor to be displayed in Heritage Hall and $50,000 toward the Trojan Football Alumni club’s John Wayne Memorial Scholarship – a fund that since 1978 has given USC football grads not pursuing professional football careers scholarships for graduate school. The Trojan Football Alumni Club also hosts an annual golf tournament that the John Wayne Cancer Foundation sponsors.

John Wayne’s eldest son Michael and daughter-in-law Gretchen (the film-producing duo that took over his company Batjac Productions) were benefactors of the cinema school. A benefactor is the highest level of the cinema school’s donor network, requiring a donation of $250,000 over a five-year period.

The creation of a John Wayne exhibit at SCA has been in the works since about 2000, then-head of the Cinematic Arts Library Steve Hanson told the Daily Trojan in 2010. Michael Wayne was an avid collector of his father’s film memorabilia. After his death in 2003, his wife, Gretchen, donated 27 storage units of materials for the exhibit.

This is not the first time USC students have protested John Wayne’s legacy on campus.

When the actor was announced as the 1973 Rose Parade Grand Marshal, USC’s school newspaper, the Daily Trojan, released an editorial entitled “John Wayne – a Racist Grand Marshall,” stating it felt the choosing of Wayne was offensive. Along with a cartoon depicting Wayne in front of an American flag, the article stated, “We think this is a gross insult to Blacks, American Indians and to Americans of any race who believe in equality.”

The cinema school’s assistant dean of diversity and inclusion, Evan Hughes, said in a statement, “Please know that we are working to build a stronger and more supportive community for our BIPOC students.”

A meeting is to be held next week to discuss the issue further.

360 images of the John Wayne Exhibit

To see a virtual tour of the John Wayne Exhibit, click here.

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Natasha Brennan, Cahuilla, is a journalist and photographer from Southern California covering the surrounding Native communities. Follow her on Twitter, @Natasha_Marie_B, or Instagram, @Natasha_Marie_B.