Hollywood Gets It Wrong, But It Still Matters
Imagine for a moment what the reaction would be if Johnny Depp played the African American sidekick of a white cowboy. In Black face. Folks would pretty much go ballistic, right? What if Depp’s grandmother told him that he had an African American ancestor somewhere back there? Would that make it okay? What if Depp said he wanted to reverse all the negative images of African Americans in cinema? Would that make it okay? What if the producers of the film donated proceeds from the premiere to the United Negro College Fund? What if there was an African American consultant working on the set? What if the movie provided roles for a dozen or so Black actors? Would any of these make it okay for Johnny Depp to don black face and portray an African American?
Some try to rationalize Depp’s Tonto as just a figment of some white writer’s imagination. But as Adrienne Keene writes at Native Appropriations.com, racial stereotyping is alive and well in most every depiction of Native peoples that we see today, Tonto included:
Let’s also not forget the major professional sports teams brandishing their racist mascots while using the justification that they are “honoring” Native peoples. Remind me again how the Washington Redskins mascot honors Native Peoples? Or the Atlanta Braves or the Cleveland Indians or the recent Stanley cup winners, the Chicago Blackhawks?
These stereotypes matter. They matter because they continue to perpetrate a view of Indians that is ultimately used to justify how they are treated in society as a whole.
AND A COUPLE MORE ARTICLES ON JOHNNY DEPP'S PORTRAYAL OF TONTO IN THE LONE RANGER MOVIE
The Real Problem with the Lone Ranger Movie? It's Racism, Stupid.
The hysteria over Johnny Depp as Tonto is (probably) in its denoument: The Lone Ranger opened to terrible reviews and disappointing box office numbers, and American Indians who didn't like the idea of Depp as a Native icon were to some extent vindicated. There will be some pieces to pick up and some lessons learned, but a lot of questions have been answered.
In a piece for Slate entitled "Johnny Depp’s Tonto: Not as Racist as You Might Think. But Still Kind of Racist," Aisha Harris was more forgiving than others, but still couldn't get past the limitations of the source material. "Depp’s attempt to be a 'warrior' role model to all the American Indian kids lucky enough to watch him save the day fails—and for the simple reason that the original material is too entrenched in an essentially racist ideology."
Native American Ancestry?
For Hammer, that means Cherokee, with "one of the earliest documented Cherokee leaders and known peace advocate, Chief Kanagatucko" way back in his family tree, according to Ancestry.com's researchers. Depp's justice-seeking relative was Elizabeth Key, the first woman in the North American colonies of African descent to sue for her slavery and win, in 1656.
Depp, who has faced criticism as a non-Native playing a Native character, has claimed American Indian blood -- specifically a grandmother who was Cherokee or Creek. The Ancestry.com release does not address the issue of Depp's purported Native blood.
I saw the Lone Ranger so that you don't have to
It’s been 12 hours since I saw The Lone Ranger, and I still have the darn William Tell Overture stuck in my head. I wonder how long that lasts. It’s like waking up with a Tonto hangover, I guess. I have so many thoughts on this film, and only maybe one of them is good. But I think we need to start off with this: The Lone Ranger is just a bad movie. It’s 2.5 hours of a film with an identity crisis, not knowing if it’s supposed to be funny, campy, dramatic, “authentic,” or what. At points it was very hard to separate the stereotypical and hurtful from the bad script, bad editing, and bad character development of the movie itself.
I wrote in my notes: FINALLY! I AM SO BORED! and then that scene drug on for another 15 minutes and I just wanted it to end. I forgot what we were even fighting for. Which I think was the problem all along.
This is also the most violent movie I’ve seen in awhile, and I’m a fan of Game of Thrones.
And for those of you new to the blog or need a refresher, here’s all my Tonto coverage over the last year or so, which covers the casting, the costume, and a whole bunch of other things: my initial reactions, why you should care about Tonto when there are “bigger issues” out there, tearing apart Depp’s reasoning over his costume choices, the controversy I dealt with for writing about Tonto, and Armie Hammer’s comments about Indians loving the movie.
The first words of the whole film: “Kemooosabeeeh.
I won’t go this in-depth with the rest of the film, but I wanted to set the stage. The very first scene we are presented with an image of a Native person, in a museum–which presumably we’re supposed to critique, but there’s no questioning of Tonto’s position there. To me it reinforces the idea that all the Indians are dead, relics of the past, which is actually a theme throughout. This Indian is so silly and backward he trades a dead mouse for a bag of peanuts, doesn’t even know how to eat peanuts, and is feeding a bird, but it’s dead. Even the child knows that’s wrong. So this is the “new” Tonto? Definitely an improvement, amiright? (that was sarcasm. In case you missed it.)
Tonto, A Misguided Friend to the Indians
At its core, this movie is a re-telling of a 1933 radio show about Hollywood's inventing Native Americans, historical confusion, and most of all this movie is about "entertainment!"
The new The Lone Ranger movie delivers on all of these promises in its contemporary tale of taming of the West. True to the genre's form, it is also a white man's debate between good and bad values and American morality.
One white man, Latham Cole (played by Tom Wilkinson), manifests his destiny by gaining all he can through the riches of the railroad (we call him "capitalism-at-all-expense tribe"), and the other white man, John Reid (played by Armie Hammer), believes in justice and "his" moral-truth (we call him the "righteous-and-overbearing tribe").
But wait, I thought this new The Lone Ranger movie was Johnny Depp's effort to show Tonto in a different light? Well, truth be told, yes, Depp's Tonto is seen in a different light, in that evidently the fictitious Tonto was much more important to the story of righteous manifest destiny than we previously knew. Yet, it is still a Native (I use the interpretation of the word "Native" very loosely) character as a secondary figure to the "white" debate over Manifest Destiny and their ideas about good and bad as they seek the taming of the West.
"This train is not going to stop..." might have been better served as a line Depp's Tonto character received, "This train is not going to stop, Depp!"
But, maybe Johnny Depp knows this better than anyone because as a Hollywood "powerhouse," Depp knows Hollywood's long and non-regulated telling of Native Americans misrepresented culture and history in movies. In Hollywood's telling of Native America, "facts" are never important and don't need to be as long as we are entertained. Native Americans in Hollywood movies have always served as a centerpiece to be molded by the "right," but mostly the "left," for the filmmaker or the studio or the financiers' personal American ideals -- and the new The Lone Ranger is no different.
Since the beginning of the moving image, Hollywood has created and appropriated its very own image of Native America that was always made by non-Native Americans for their own political point of view towards the masses.
Johnny Depp's "Tonto" resembles nothing that is Native American in reality, not his talk, not his crow on his head, not his face paint or his Potawatomi language "Kemosabe," spoken by a fictional Comanche character. Depp's Tonto is an entertaining farce. It's an idea audiences world-wide own through Hollywood invention and appropriation. The Lone Ranger's storyline, its characters and its ideas are not based in historical fact or related to Native America or its contemporary progressive people. Period.
Today, there needs to be a new category for the appropriation of Native American images by Hollywood and by non-Natives that try and portray that idea for mass consumption. I know, let's call it "entertainment."
And, I have to say, there are a lot of Native people who seem irate over Depp's portrayal of "red face." I was recently asked, "Is Depp's Tonto offensive to Native people?" I thought to myself, two things. One, if a Native person is offended by this Tonto character they must not recognize how unbelievable this character is, and two, if Native people think this is their opportunity to change other people's minds regarding negative representations of Native characterization I would say, "Go see another movie!!"