July 07, 2013

What's wrong with Del Toro and Depp?

This satire was cute:

Disney defends Depp’s role as Native American: ‘We were unable to find a dark-skinned Italian’

By Alexander HuntleyAfter the first night of Disney’s The Lone Ranger premiere, the mass media corporation that produced the western classic remake responded to concerns regarding their casting choice and admitted that they originally looked for someone whose Italian ethnicity looked more of the part.

“Depp was our last resort,” said Gore Verbinski, the director of the American action-adventure film. “We were looking for a more realistic Native American; you know like a darker-skinned Italian or even a Spaniard. They know how to talk funny and I think they’re pretty good with horses since they’re descendents of Romans.”
But here's the reality:

What's Wrong With Benicio Del Toro and Johnny Depp Playing Indian Characters?

By Sonny SkyhawkFilms that feature American Indian characters are far and few between, and when a Native character does have a significant part, what happens? Hollywood casts a non-Indian in the role. It is a dilemma that we as American Indians working within the industry have had to deal with for a long time, and now we are on the verge of becoming extinct in Hollywood. As Native people we have had to deal with a larger identity issue than just being invisible in film and television. Our issue is multiplied by the long time practice of marketers using us to brand everything from baking powder to gasoline. Athletic organizations using us as disparaging mascots, and promoting an inaccurate version of history that gives the impression we are still fighting the “Indian wars” of yesteryear. I don’t mean on the surface so much, but subliminally. We are still perceived as less than equals. You don’t see Native people in commercials, yet we are consumers just like everyone else. We are totally underserved when it comes to marketing to our people, yet we buy cars, lotions, food, and every conceivable product. Children’s programming does not contain any storylines or images of our own people, so our children are deprived of seeing their own images reflected. You can only imagine the psychological or sociological ramifications of that ordeal on innocent children.

On the flip side, though this is not a popular thing to say, I also think “American Indians” or "Native Americans” as we are called today, are somewhat responsible, indirectly, for some of that history due to apathy about our image. Hollywood and Madison Avenue leveraged that apathy; we became fair game for exploitation. Our apathy was used as a license to create cartoonish mascot images of our people. The Native people of this hemisphere deserve better, and maybe our innocence relied on some sense of fair play. I am in no way condoning the “tanning” or “painting” of non-natives to play “Indians”, or wear chicken feathers or dead birds on their heads--that is as ludicrous as it looks. In reality, if we did wear an animal skin or any part of an animal, we were respectful for its sacrifice and did so in honor of that spiritual being. The disrespect being shown by the character of Johnny Depp as Tonto is to play a shaman or medicine person. No Native person who knows and lives his culture, no advisor or tribal historian, possesses the ability to grant permission to anyone to play a medicine person. Only a medicine person can be a medicine person, which brings us full circle to who can play what. So we come back to the issue of The Lone Ranger, Jimmy P., in which Benicio Del Toro plays an Indian, and the television series Longmire, in which Lou Diamond Phillips plays an Indian--and again ask: Why?

I would venture to say that if Disney asked Johnny Depp to play Martin Luther King in a movie, there is no doubt in my mind that the African American community would be up in arms, and it would not happen--absolutely not. Then why is it that Hollywood feels no compunction in casting a non-native as an iconic American Indian.
Hollywood might respond that the characters of Tonto, Jimmy Picard, and Henry Standing Bear in Longmire make Indians visible. Who plays them is a detail compared to that.

So Skyhawk doesn't quite answer the title question. But The Lone Ranger provides a textbook example of why Indians need to be involved--as writers, directors, and producers as well as actors.

Johnny Depp created the false and stereotypical Tonto and is 100% responsible for him. If an Indian had been asked to revamp Tonto, the character would've come out differently and probably better. Then the movie might not have flopped and people might be demanding more movies about Indians starring Indians.

Another article makes the same points:

Painting over the real picture

Depp lacks depth with culturally inaccurate portrayal of Tonto in Lone Ranger, some aboriginals say

By Katherine Monk
Disney clearly tried to cover the problem with white paint, but the studio may still be red-faced over Johnny Depp's "redface" in its multi-million dollar take on The Lone Ranger.

Though every poster and publicity still featuring Johnny Depp in the role of Tonto has the American actor wearing a very white coat of pancake, the issue of cultural and ethnic appropriation continues to rear its head--despite Depp's assertion that he's part Cherokee, and therefore perfectly suited to wearing a dead crow on his head and speaking in halting sentences that conjure fond memories of Tarzan.

Depp says he wanted to "right the wrong" of the original series, starring bona fide aboriginal actor Jay Silverheels, but some First Nations actors and writers say he's simply perpetuating false, over-romanticized myths. "They've been showing us the same images for 70 or 80 years, and it obviously works ... but their first priority isn't accuracy. It's making money," says Kelly Anderson, a First Nations writer and critic living in Toronto.

"When I first heard about the movie I was excited because Jay Silverheels came from my reserve, the Six Nations reserve--and then I found out Johnny Depp was involved," Anderson says.

"I heard Johnny Depp thinks his grandmother is Cherokee, but he's not even sure, and I was surprised they were choosing someone who wasn't even sure of his own ancestry," she says.

"Then the photos came out, and it turns out the paint and the bird (for Tonto) were inspired by a (Kirby Sattler) painting. He's not Native. It's not accurate, and that was the first sign this wasn't going to be anything good for the representation of First Nations people on film."

First Nations actor-turned-physician Evan Adams echoes a similar reticence.

The B.C. star of 1998's Smoke Signals, considered the most accurate--as well as the most critically beloved--movie about the Aboriginal experience, now works as a doctor. But when rumblings of Depp as Tonto started to echo across communities before the film's release, a list of alternate and fully aboriginal choices began to circulate and Adams was a prime candidate among his peers.

"I was the comedic choice--I'm short and funny-looking--and given a chance at it, I would have searched the ends of the earth to find what it took to fill Jay Silverheels's moccasins. But there isn't a mechanism to put an aboriginal actor in this kind of studio film," says Adams.
Comment:  Again, "they" didn't choose Depp to play the false and stereotypical Tonto. Depp invented the false and stereotypical Tonto.

If a Native actor played Depp's version of Tonto, the problems would still exist. The solution is to involve Indians in all phases of the production, and not to rely on Indian wannabes like Depp.

For more on Johnny Depp, see Lone Ranger Pitch Meeting, Critics Agree: Lone Ranger Is Bad and New Tonto as Racist as Old Tonto.

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