November 17, 2008

Johnny Depp to redefine Tonto?

Johnny and Tonto Fistfight in Hollywood

By Carole LevineThink about it—arguably Hollywood's most versatile actor who claims a smackrel of Cherokee and Navajo lineage assuming the part of Native America’s most controversial film character. The buzz in the mainstream media is ecstatic; the buzz in the Native press has been a mix of muted enthusiasm and derisiveness. Tonto, many implore, that’s bad enough…but having a white dude play him? That’s even worse.

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…
Comment:  As far as I know, Depp has claimed only an Eastern Cherokee heritage, not Navajo.

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:Native Americans have been minimalized, trivialized, co opted and appropriated for as long as there have been movies; burnished caricatures of the savage, Indian princess or mystic played by White folk speaking pidgin English. By today’s standards, the vision of Natalie Wood, Chuck Connors and Burt Lancaster in brown makeup and bad wigs might seem quaintly amusing. Think again.

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.
Is the key difference that Depp discovered his 1/16th Indian blood years ago rather than recently? Or that Carole loves Depp but doesn't care about Lautner? I don't know, but the latter possibility is a good guess.

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.

P.S. "Smackrel"?

14 comments:

dmarks said...

I will repeat my suggestion to make this new Lone Range project truly interesting: have a Native play the Lone Ranger.

n8iVEntheTriangle said...

Or just don't make it at all. Why are they drudging up this embarrassing bit of history anyway? They just flat out shouldn't be making this movie. I wouldn't want a Native Actor playing a sidekick to a white cowboy either. I just don't seem them redefining the roles at all, they'll just draw on some other stereotypes for Tonto and call it "honoring" Indians. I hope I'm wrong.

Melvin Martin said...

My comment from 11/11, which is still relevant to this subject:


Melvin Martin said...
Re: Johnny Depp as Tonto

Let's face it, sports fans - the bottom line in Hollyweird is and always has been money. If Depp is cast as Tonto or has already been cast as Tonto or whatever his involvement in this film is (I, personally, do not know nor do I even care at all as I have never been into Johnny Depp), it's all about getting adoring bodies into those (mostly empty these days) theater seats.

If an actual full-blooded Indian were cast in this role, there goes the starry-eyed white female demographic out the door once they see him on screen (or really, never even entering the doors of the movie house once they hear about this unknown). So too, will the gay male audience, according to a gay former co-worker of mine that I posed this issue to (he, incidentally, has a tattoo of Depp on his right bicep).

And Hollyweird (remaining a largely racist institution, no matter how many token minority actors they employ) HAS TO cast "Indian" actors with Caucasian facial features to reel in the big bucks, you all know that! Just like the crappy artwork on all of those Indian warrior-white woman romance novels that are all the rage with the fantasy-challenged, mainly stay-at-home moms.

Depp, to me, is the Robbie Benson of this era in American movie-making - do you recall that Benson was cast as an Indian ("Running Brave") and as a Chicano gang member in "Walk Proud."

No matter what happens, any remake of The Lone Ranger and Tonto will probably tank at the box office as the American Western has pretty much died and gone to that great and lonely cinematic Boot Hill where the ghostly form of a skeletal, mange-ridden coyote wails sadly into that ultra-dark, forever-moonless night.

11:56 PM (11/11/08)

dmarks said...

n8: Actually, the overall concept does not excite me. I'm from the "post-Western" TV generation. The Lone Ranger just doesn't mean much to me. I just know what it is, and don't even know the character's real name (or if he had one).

Rob said...

Until Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp hadn't put many adoring bodies in the seats. Hence my posting on the Fallacy of the Big-Name Actor.

You're right about the casting of Native actors with Caucasian features. We see this particularly with Native women, who have to meet Hollywood's standard of beauty or else.

Open Range, Comanche Moon, even Brokeback Mountain did okay at the box office or in the ratings. So I wouldn't exactly say the Western genre is dead. But we can be sure it'll never return to its glory days.

The real question is whether there's a demand for another Lone Ranger remake. Judging by the previous remakes, the answer is no. Judging by the successful LONE RANGER comic, the answer is maybe.

The Zorro movies effectively revitalized one old-time hero. But the Pirates movies made a mockery of pirates for true students of the field. Who knows whether Disney's Lone Ranger will be more like the former or the latter?

Note that the people responsible for Pirates (writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and producer Jerry Bruckheimer) are making the new movie. I don't doubt that they'll make it entertaining. I can just imagine Depp's Tonto being partly heroic and partly comical a la Captain Jack Sparrow.

But again, this ignores the crucial issues. Will this Tonto resemble a real Indian? And couldn't Adam Beach or a dozen other Native actors play the role as well?

P.S. The Lone Ranger's real name is Reid or John Reid in most versions of the tale. See The Lone Ranger for details.

Kareen said...

I don't think Johnny is the right choice for Tonto either, tell you what, you send him to my house & I'll keep him busy while you get Nathaniel Arcand, Steve Reevis, Adam Beach or Nathan Chasing Horse. Guys that are true skins & can act. I think all Johnny needs to bring out his lil' Cherokee side is the right woman.

Anonymous said...

First time posting here.

NAICA online runs a blog about this sort of thing too. We first posted about this a few months back and then quickly dismissed it because the issue is completely ludicrous.

Firstly, because it's a waste of money to make a film off this series, and we figured Bruckheimer would realize that and drop this idea. Secondly, because the controversy over Depp playing an Indian, which he is, is also ludicrous.

I love how people feel they have the right to define the identity of others. Depp has never, NOT ever, denied his Cherokee heritage. How could he? He looks like an Eastern Band Cherokee! Put him together with Wes Studi. Go ahead and do so in your mind's eye. Picturing the two? Good. Focus on the eyes, the cheekbones, the mouth?! Come on! They both look like what they say they are one more so than the other. And now consider the fact that it's American Indians who have to prove what they are- even to each other before they will be accepted as such! Subjectivities skew all over the place in relation to cultural and racial identities in America, yet Depp has never skewed from his.

On the flipside of this identity debate is that if he actively denied his Cherokee background Indians would bitch about that too!

As for Native actors with the skill to play Tonto...what a laughable idea! There's skill involved in portraying that wooden Indian? If there is then my vote is for Adam Beach. No Indian turns out a consistently wooden performance than Beach does!
As for the other Native actors suggested: Farmer-too damn fine an actor to ever consider something so ridiculous!; Chasing Horse-Ugh! He can't act his way out of a sopping wet paper bag; Eddie Spears-too tall and too young; Steve Reevis-too old; Nathan Arcand-been there, done that.

No, my vote, if I had one (which none of us do), is for Adam Beach. The most easily digestible, consistently boring, marketable Indian actor not really working today.

In conclusion: if Indians really wanted to protest this film they could by writing letters to the production company, forwarding vicious, but smartly pointed blogs and news stories deriding the actual making of this film which as we can all agree, shouldn't be made at all, and by shaming Johnny into refusing the role. He's a sensitive guy after all and would probably cry if he knew his fellow Indians were up in arms about him not being Indian enough to play a stereotypical Indian in a dumb ass film version of a dumb ass television show.

Rob said...

Don't Eastern Cherokees have a lot of white or black blood? I don't think Depp, the 1/16th (or whatever) Kentucky Cherokee, looks much like Studi, the full-blooded Oklahoma Cherokee. Depp definitely doesn't look much like an Apache, which is what Tonto is supposed to be.

We addressed some of your points in Johnny Depp Looks Indian? and Responses to Redefining Tonto. Feel free to respond there.

As for your actor suggestions, a little-known actor would be the best bet for making The Lone Ranger a blockbuster. See the Fallacy of the Big-Name Actor for the reason why.

Finally, I don't write this blog to fight individual battles. I write it to educate and enlighten people: those who are reading it now or who will read it in the future. If Depp or Bruckheimer sees this posting, it'll be icing on the cake. Getting a response from them is not my primary goal.

Anonymous said...

"I'd say he looks much more like a Caucasian than one of the hundreds or thousands of Indians I know."

Don't you live out west and associate mostly with full-blood Navajos and other full blood western tribes? How many Eastern Cherokees (fullblood, or otherwise) do you know? To say that this man (Depp) doesn't look Cherokee is not very well thought out. Mixed-blooded yes, but NDN features are quite prominent nonetheless.

Sweetwater said...

I don't care who plays the role as long as they don't have to wear a wig...REAL Hair peeps!

Rob said...

I'm guessing Depp will have to wear a wig, Sweetwater. What do you think about that?

I live in Los Angeles, Anonymous, so I see mainly California Indians in person. But I also see many Indians from elsewhere on trips and at conventions. As well as in the media and on the Net, of course.

The Eastern Cherokee population is something like 10,000-20,000. The total population of people who are Indian or part-Indian is about 4.5 million. So the Eastern Cherokee make up roughly a third of 1% of America's Indian population.

If Depp looks like an Eastern Cherokee, that doesn't tell us anything about whether he looks like the 99 2/3% of Indians who aren't Eastern Cherokee. I'm saying he doesn't look much like the Indians I've seen from all over the country, of whom the Eastern Cherokee are only a tiny fraction.

Since Tonto is supposedly a full-blooded Apache, the real question is whether Depp looks like such a person. And not whether he looks like a 1/8th or whatever Eastern Cherokee. A Southwestern Indian with Athabascan (Navajo or Apache) features would be an excellent choice to play Tonto.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how I found this blog but, since I have, I will chip in my two cents.

1) I really think that, had Depp claimed ancestry but Cherokee (Eastern or Western), this wouldn't be quite the issue it is being made out to be. Let's face it: There is a lot of anti-Cherokee prejudice in Indian Country and, had Depp claimed some other, less assimilated, ancestry, there would have been grumbling but comparatively little time spent discussing the issue of whether or not he is "Indian" enough to play Tonto.

This of course, brings me to my next point.

2) Why would any self-respecting Indian want this role? After all, it is demeaning. I would think the complaint would be that the film is being made at all, rather than that the role was given to an actor not possessing adequate blood quantum from the right tribe.

Rob said...

1) I can't speak for others, but I don't have any prejudice against Cherokees. My prejudice is against people who are mostly white playing Indians in movies and TV shows.

2) A good Native actor could transform the Tonto role into something original and special. I've covered this point in postings such as:

Indians don't care about Depp?
Responses to redefining Tonto
Sheyahshe on Depp as Tonto

juicy flawless said...

You're assuming Johnny Depp will portray Tonto the same way he played Captain Jack Sparrow? Why? Because they're both by Disney?

Johnny has never played the same character twice, and I highly doubt Johnny would ruin Tonto in a way that would be offensive,
especially to Native Americans.