Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Thin Black Duke

John Wayne wisely never performed in blackface, although he did portray Genghis Khan in The Conqueror--a performance many call his “yellowface” role (as well as his worst and his most unfortunate-the film's Utah set, 225 miles from a nuclear test site, is accused of giving 90 cast and crew members, including The Duke, cancer). Little do our minds know, but Wayne was a shapeshifter.

My dream last night--influenced heavily by weary eyes, emotional stress and honky tonk alcohol--took place in a newspaper montage of a 1950s black-and-white film, where spinning tabloids rocketed at the viewer, exclaiming what only 48 pt text could back in 24 hour news days. John Wayne, once again it seems, had passed, and only the print media could memorialize him. Unlike Frank Sinatra, whose death was informed to me by Matt Lauer, the written word would break the news.

The media of my dreams decided to pay scant attention to the slow drawing, slow drawl cowboy who was John Wayne. They were all blackface Wayne. Merely seconds after his death, casting calls went out for the actor who would best portray The Duke in his least talked about role: the blackface clown.

There were givens: Tom Hanks, Gene Hackman (one last great time, old buddy). Some oddities: Jamie Foxx, John C. O’Reilly. The role ultimately went to an unknown, whose sepia headshot he submitted of the blackface Wayne captured the idea: even then much like now, he really should just be very tan.

Who got it right, however? The New Yorker, whose black-and-white cover told the story. A nondescript clown in whiteface, standing before a brick wall of black, a big oval surrounding his booger lips. Us and the world we act like we know, symbolism regardless of race.
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