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AMC's Native Crime Drama Dark Winds Took Inspiration from John Wayne

Director Chris Eyre tells us how he set out to present the show's Native characters as classic American heroes.
  • The first time we see Zahn McLarnon's face in Dark Winds (Photo: AMC)
    The first time we see Zahn McLarnon's face in Dark Winds (Photo: AMC)

    Before we know that Lieutenant Jim Leaphorn is Native, we know he’s a legend. Leaphorn is the protagonist in Dark Winds, the noir crime thriller set in the Navajo Nation that premiered Sunday on AMC and AMC+, and over the course of the show’s first season, we learn plenty about his law enforcement career, his family, his regrets, and his hopes for the future. But for his first minute on screen, we don’t even see his face.

    In fact, the first thing we see is his cowboy hat. Director Chris Eyre shoots Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon) from overhead while he makes a petty criminal re-bury some Navajo artifacts that they dug up to steal. “And we have Zahn in a white hat,” Eyre says. “Which is the hero’s color.”

    That’s no accident. Eyre and the rest of the show’s creative team, starting with series creator Graham Roland, set out to evoke a variety of classic genres. “We’re amalgamating so many great ‘comfort foods’ on this show,” says Eyre, who helms four of the season's six episodes. “The western is a comfort food. The mystery crime drama is a comfort food. Even the culture of the Southwest. These are all foundational elements that work incredibly well for our visual, cinematic language.”

    So when you see an officer in a white hat, you’re absolutely supposed to think of Gary Cooper and John Wayne and all those other gunslinging "good guys" ingrained in our shared cultural consciousness. And after that overhead shot, Eyre ups the mythical ante. He cuts to a shot of Leaphorn’s waist, where we see his blue jeans, his leather jacket, and his pistol in a holster. Then Eyre shoots him from underneath, so that sunlight obscures his face while it blazes across that white hat.

    The message is clear: This is an iconic cowboy lawman. This is an American myth brought to life. As Eyre says, “We’re familiar enough with that [imagery] to say, ‘Oh, this is the western moral guy who’s out there kicking ass for everybody.”

    And then, finally, the camera pushes in. At first his cowboy hat is covering his eyes, but then he looks up. The glare from the sun vanishes, and for the first time we can see that our cowboy, our hero, is Native.

    “These images are loaded,” says Eyre. “When you put a Native person on screen, it’s political. And the only reason it’s political is because of the absence of Native people in mass media. We conjure them in westerns as antagonists, but besides that we’ve really had an absence of a three-dimensional Native character that was progressive and contemporary and part of their own living culture.” (Eyre himself is Native, and so is most of the team on Dark Winds.)

    This three-dimensionality is key. It's why, along with the archetypal images, Eyre packs his episodes with moments that humanize characters. This helps emphasize that Native people are part of America's everyday life, as well as its mythology.

    To that end, we see Leaphorn with his co-workers and family, relaxing, joking, and grieving. We see the Native cops working hard to solve murders on their land. We also see them incorporating Native religious practices. Before a tense investigation Leaphorn’s fellow officer Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten) smudges her face after a tense encounter with a woman who knows dark magic. Unlike the scene that introduces Leaphorn, Eyre shoots this moment matter-of-factly, without framing it to suggest it has cosmic power. “I don’t objectify it,” he says. “We don’t explain that stuff. It is what it is. These characters understand what they know, and we leave it at that. Bernadette believes all of it, so who are we to say?”

    He continues, “It’s about making characters that are both human and universal. It’s about getting a vantage point on the lives of these people we didn’t know before. But we also understand who they are on a universal level.”

    AMC airs new episodes of Dark Winds on Sunday nights at 9 PM through July 17. Episodes premiere a week earlier on AMC+.

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    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Dark Winds, AMC, AMC+, Chris Eyre, Graham Roland, Jessica Matten, Zahn McClarnon