By Ruben Navarette
There’s only one problem: There is no leading man. Depp has dropped out of the project. The exit was probably a bit sticky, given the late notice and the fact that he and Kusturica are said to be friends.
The explanation, for public consumption, is that Depp had too many other commitments. But, if you want to know the real reason, just listen to what the actor said a couple of weeks earlier. At a news conference promoting his new film, “Rango,” Depp was asked about the possibility that he might play Villa. He said that the project was “up in the air” and that he was facing a “dilemma” because, as he put it:
“I feel like it should be played by a Mexican,” he told the assembled media. “Not some mutt from Kentucky. ... I still feel very strongly about that.”
"I feel like it [Tonto] should be played by an Indian," he could've told some assembled media but didn't. "Not some mutt from Kentucky. ... I still feel very strongly about that." Unless Disney asks politely and offers a big paycheck, he might've added. In which case he'll toss his alleged scruples out the window. And take the job from a perfectly good Native actor who could've become a star from the role.
Note that Depp calls himself a "mutt"--i.e., a person of mixed blood--not a Cherokee or an Indian. So let's not have any talk about how he is a Cherokee or an Indian. His self-identification as a mutt is enough to disqualify him from playing Tonto.
In reality, he's more qualified to play a Mexican than he is to play an Indian. As I said in What's the Difference Between Indian and Latino? the two ethnic groups are different culturally, not biologically. Physically speaking, Depp is indistinguishable from Latinos who are part Indian but mostly Caucasian.
So he isn't willing to play a Latino role, but is willing to play an Indian one? Perhaps he has a good explanation for this apparent hypocrisy, but I haven't heard it.
I'm afraid the explanation is a bad one. That it's something on the order of, "I agreed to play Tonto because I didn't think there were any Native actors who could do the job." His plan to "go Native" also suggests he doesn't think many Indians exist outside traditional reservations preserved as living museums.
Brownface and redface
The article concludes with a discussion of the problems facing Latino actors. These problems also apply to Native actors--almost word for word:
Now the CEO of Maya Cinemas, a theater chain that caters to Latinos in the United States, Esparza casts himself in both roles. The artist appreciates, as he told me, “the potential of what human beings are capable of doing” in playing someone of a different race or ethnicity. But the activist sees things like boneheaded casting decisions in the context of what has been Hollywood’s ugly history with Latinos. After all, for much of the 20th century, Latinos were depicted on film as either Latin lovers or border bandits.
“They made a whole series of movies where white people played Mexicans,” Esparza recalled. “And they were generally evil characters.”
It’s this history that makes what the filmmaker calls “brown face”—the practice of non-Latinos playing Latinos—so very troubling.