John Wayne and the African American Community
John Wayne was accused by some critics of being racist because of his belief in white supremacy in America. And his intimate association with the Western film, which has traditionally ignored or, at best, under-represented all ethnic minorities, was used by his critics as further proof of his racism. Most of all he was attacked by Native Americans and African Americans.
Even more controversial than his attitude toward Native Americans were John Wayne's views of the position of blacks in America, which irritated and upset the black community. Ebony magazine accused him of making films whose explicit message was that non-white people were the villains–which he denied. But he didn't feel apologetic about his attitude: “I don't feel guilty about the fact that five or ten generations ago these people were slaves.” “I'm not condoning slavery,” he explained, “It's just a fact of life, like the kid who gets infantile paralysis and has to wear braces so he can't play football with the rest of us.”
As for Wayne's policy toward employing black actors in his movies, Wayne said, “I've directed two pictures and I gave the blacks their proper position. I had a black slave in The Alamo,” and I had a correct number of blacks in The Green Berets.” He said he was guided by clear criteria: “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.”
Wayne reminded that in 1962's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” his faithful employee was black (Woody Strody), which was actually a letdown for this actor, because Strody had played the leading role in Ford's Sergeant Routledge,” concerning the trial of a black soldier accused of rape and murder.
In The Cowboys,” Roscoe Lee Browne had a relatively large role, cast as Wayne's cook and assistant.
The under-representation of blacks in Westerns was striking considering the fact that about one fourth of the working cowboys in the nineteenth century were black.
Blacks had played bigger roles in the 1930s and 1940s in films specifically designed for black audiences. The Western, in fact, incorporated black characters into its narratives much later than the serious-problem films dealing with blacks, such as Pinky,” Lost Boundaries,” and Home of the Brave,” all in the late 1940s.
It took another decade before Westerns began to deal with black characters or black issues and, when that happened, it was a result of the realization that there was a profitable black market and a number of talented black actors (Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis, Ossie Davis, and Harry Belafonte).
Wayne held that the Hollywood studios of the l970s “are carrying their tokenism a little too far.” And while he believed that “there should be the same percentage of the colored race in films as in society,” he also realized that “it can't always be that way,” because “more than likely, ten percent haven't trained themselves for that type of work.” “It's just as hard for a white man to get a card in the Hollywood craft unions,” he said, which meant that it would take a long time until blacks would be integrated into the film industry.
Wayne believed in gradual integration, “we can't all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of blacks.” At the same time, he considered their “resentment along with their dissent,” to be “rightfully so.”
What irritated the blacks most was his belief 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.” Challenged, if he were equipped to judge “which blacks are irresponsible and which of their leaders inexperienced,” he replied: “It's not my judgment.
The academic community has developed certain tests that determine whether the blacks are sufficiently equipped scholastically.” Thus, he did not approve of blacks who tried “to force the issue and enter college when they haven't passed the tests and don't have the requisite background,” fearing that by doing so, “the academic society is brought down to the lowest common denominator.” He refused to believe that “blacks have been forbidden their right to go to school,” because “they were allowed in public schools wherever I've been.”
Moreover, Wayne claimed that there was a reverse discrimination in America: “I think any black that competes with a white today gets a better break than a white man.” But he never lost his optimism about the tremendous opportunities in America: “I wish they'd tell me where in the world they have it better than right here in America.”
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