By Anthony Breznican
“I’d actually seen a painting by an artist named Kirby Sattler, and looked at the face of this warrior and thought: That’s it,” Depp said in a recent interview. “The stripes down the face and across the eyes … it seemed to me like you could almost see the separate sections of the individual, if you know what I mean.”
Well, not really … Separate sections of the individual?
Depp explained that the lines of paint on the Native American’s face looked to him like a cross-section of the man’s emotional life. “There’s this very wise quarter, a very tortured and hurt section, an angry and rageful section, and a very understanding and unique side. I saw these parts, almost like dissecting a brain, these slivers of the individual,” he said.”That makeup inspired me.”
You can see more of Sattler’s work here: http://kirbysattler.sattlerartprint.com/
The painting also provided inspiration for Tonto’s headdress. “It just so happened Sattler had painted a bird flying directly behind the warrior’s head. It looked to me like it was sitting on top,” Depp said, which led him to another eureka moment. “I thought: Tonto’s got a bird on his head. It’s his spirit guide in a way. It’s dead to others, but it’s not dead to him. It’s very much alive.”
The title of Sattler’s original work is “I Am Crow,” and although there are Crow peoples native to the northern part of the American Midwest, Sattler says his paintings are not meant to refer to specific tribes. In the new film, Tonto is technically a full-blooded Comanche, and Depp identifies in real life as part Cherokee and Creek Indian, based on a Kentucky great-grandmother’s ancestry, so the character is proving to be less historically specific to one tribe than a blend of various cultures and influences.
Sattler himself, who licensed the look of his painting to the filmmakers, tells EW his work is a fusion of history and fiction. “The portraits I paint are composites created from a variety of visual references coupled with my imagination,” he says. “While being broadly based in a historical context, my paintings are not intended to be viewed as historically accurate. I used the combination of face paint and headdress as an artistic expression to symbolize the subject’s essence and his affinity to the Crow.”
Comment: Naturally, this revelation led to more rants on the subject. Including this mini-dialogue with someone on Facebook:
"Johnny Depp reveals origins of Tonto makeup"--he fabricated it from a painting with no basis in historical reality.
I'm glad to see that all of us who guessed Depp's source and motivation were basically right. He "honors" and "respects" Indians by inventing one out of thin air. Just like a million hipsters, New Agers, and other wannabes.
When Hollywood starts inventing looks for gold prospectors and Cavalry soldiers--some of Tonto's contemporaries--then it can invent Tonto's look too. Heck, let's put a crow on everyone's head: the Lone Ranger, the schoolmarm, the saloon-keeper, et al. What's the justification for singling out the Indian for this treatment?
In short, "Hollywood invents things" is no excuse whatsoever. Hollywood invents things based on racist stereotypes that apply to minorities but not to whites. That's the problem we're noting here.
It's the same reason cartoon Indian mascots are wrong but cartoon cowboy or pirate mascots are okay. One discriminates on the basis of race and is thus racist; the other doesn't.
Note what sounds like a disconnect between Depp and Sattler. Depp thinks the crow is flying behind the Indian's head. Sattler talks about the "headdress"--but the only thing resembling a headdress is the crow. Ergo, the crow must be on the Indian's head, not behind it.
So Depp not only falsified a Comanche look from a Crow painting, he falsified what was in the painting itself. He decided his fairy-tale dream of an Indian--like his fairy-tale dream of a pirate--was more important than anything. "I saw a crow flying in a painting and thought it belonged on Tonto's head."
An Indian with a spirit animal on his head...why not? Apparently Depp thinks all Indians are touchy-feely mystics who talk to animals, commune with the dead, and so forth. They're supernatural beings, like warlocks, elves, or fairies, not real people.
Let's also note that we can dismiss the Depp defenders who said he wouldn't stereotype Indians, he has no control over the costume, etc. You were all very, very wrong.
As I thought, Depp's understanding of Indians is superficial and stereotypical. If you saw his "Cherokee" tattoo of a Plains chief in a headdress, you might've guessed this.
To sum it up:
Depp's motivation is the same as those who dress up as Indians for Halloween or beer parties: "I wanna look like my fantasy of an Indian."
How a Hollywood star thinks: "I saw a funny-looking Indian somewhere. I'll use that look in my big-budget movie and cement it in people's minds worldwide."
This is why you cast Natives, not wannabes, to play Natives. Even if Depp does everything right in the movie, his "spirit animal" costume and character will influence millions of opinions. A non-Native is determining what many people will think about Indians for years to come.
Sure, a Native actor might've made the same choices...but it isn't likely. A Native actor probably wouldn't have the same sense of white entitlement. He wouldn't have thought, "My vision of Native life is better than reality. I'm a star so I know best."
For more on Johnny Depp and his costume choices, see Tonto as a "Spirit Warrior" and Johnny Depp in a Crow Headdress. For more on the issue of his playing Tonto, see Open Letter to Johnny Depp's Tonto and Why Tonto Matters.