By Carole Levine
Then again, maybe not. Maybe, just maybe the powerhouse duo of Bruckheimer and Depp will redefine Tonto in the public psyche the same way Jack Sparrow redefined pirates—witty and drop-dead sexy, a bona fide STAR. If they do, the image of Native America’s Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Stepin Fetchit will never be the same.
Fair argument, but why didn’t Bruckheimer pick from the flourishing crop of talented Native actors? Seriously, does anyone believe that a non-black actor would ever be chosen to portray an African American icon?
Indeed, the idea that well into the 21st century Hollywood is casting “red-face” is disconcerting. Yet, let’s be honest, there isn’t an actor of any ethnic background who could add the savoir-faire to the patently uncool Tonto that Depp can. And lest we forget, he is of Native blood and has always proudly acknowledged this.
So I’m taking a leap of faith and trust the A-team will do right and not create a big-budget Indian minstrel show. It’s a gamble, but consider the potential…
Johnny Depp may be a star, but he's not a box-office guarantee. I've discussed the fallacy of the big-name actor before and Carole hasn't said anything to contradict my conclusions.
Before Pirates of the Caribbean, we generally viewed pirates as "savage warriors" who lived by their own moral code outside of civilization. In other words, we viewed them much like Indians. Which explains why pirates and Indians co-starred as the villains in Peter Pan.
Depp redefined a pirate from a down-and-dirty, tough-as-nails fighter to a prancing, mincing comic character. Is that what we want to see done with Tonto, too? I don't think so.
Unfortunately, Carole took the opposite viewpoint the last time a non-Native actor took a Native role. But then the person was the little-known Taylor Lautner, not the well-known Johnny Depp:
It has been a hard, long slog for contemporary Natives to break free of these overtly racist stereotypes—which is why a major film like Twilight is such a prime opportunity to introduce the world to a contemporary Native who isn’t an alcoholic or New Age spiritualist.
The claim that no young Native actors have the qualifications to fill the role is nonsense. For starters, Nakotah Larance, who appeared in HBO’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and was a standout in Spielberg’s Into the West miniseries definitely has the resume and looks. Yet the six-time world champion hoop dancer was passed over as were other capable Native actors.
In any case, I don't buy her argument that Depp's acting ability makes his choice okay. Or that no Native actor could've done the role justice. Tonto needs to be played by someone who's more Indian than past Tontos, not less Indian.
For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.