Johnny Depp’s Tonto: Not as Racist as You Might Think. But Still Kind of Racist
By Aisha Harris
But the filmmakers ultimately can’t resist making the white man the hero of this story. Even though Tonto is the driving force for the majority of the movie, the Lone Ranger gets the pomp and circumstance from both the innocent citizens of Colby, Texas, and the film’s creators, in the end. This is to be expected: It is, after all, called The Lone Ranger. But when the Lone Ranger finally fulfills the role he was “destined” to play, it comes seemingly out of nowhere, nearly two hours into the 149-minute film, and feels completely unearned. Tonto, for all of the filmmakers’ evident intentions, becomes by the finale a less egregious rendition of Bagger Vance and countless other “mythical” minority characters, devoted to building up the courage and strength of the heroic white leads.
On a scale of 1 to The Searchers, The Lone Ranger rates at about a 4 in terms of its depiction of American Indians. Is it blatantly racist and shameful? No. But the filmmakers don’t succeed in their effort to have it both ways. Depp’s attempt to be a “warrior” role model to all the American Indian kids lucky enough to watch him save the day fails—and for the simple reason that the original material is too entrenched in an essentially racist ideology. While the attempt to humanize Tonto—to turn him into a complicated, fully realized, respectable character—seems noble, and maybe even a step above what we normally expect from Hollywood, the movie doesn’t make a strong enough case for bringing him back from the past in the first place. The spirits of certain cultural figures are probably better left alone.
By Jason Bailey
So, which is he? A broad stereotype, a noble shaman, or a comic charlatan? Depp doesn’t know; he’s a gifted performer but an undisciplined one, and Verbinski isn’t much for laser focus either, as the 149-minute running time makes clear. This is an actor who Disney is paying, as he has said, “stupid money,” so when he sees a white artist’s painting of an imaginary Native American and decides that’s how Tonto’s gonna look, well then, that’s how Tonto looks.
But the problem with The Lone Ranger—aside from it being lumbering, overlong, unfunny, and frequently dull—is that its script is no less confused about how to represent Native Americans than Depp is. They’ll dramatize a violent, terrifying Comanche raid, and exploit all of that loaded imagery, as long as it turns out that the “Indians” were actually masquerading white thugs. They’ll create a Tonto who “trades” feathers for the rings off a dead man’s fingers, as long as he’s given a sentimental backstory. And then they’ll send out their marquee leading man to explain how he’s pretending to be a Native American to “give some hope to kids on the reservations. They’re living without running water and seeing problems with drugs and booze. But I wanted to be able to show these kids, ‘Fuck that! You’re still warriors, man.’”
But the question remains: why bother? The fact is, sometimes time passes, and cultural norms change, and certain characters or tropes or texts just become too antiquated. The Lone Ranger left this viewer with a feeling weirdly similar to the aftertaste of Michael Radford’s 2004 Merchant of Venice (the Pacino one): like maybe we just don’t need to tell this story anymore, since it—though a classic, and an important piece of literature, etc. etc.—is deeply, unavoidably, problematically anti-Semitic. And the makers of The Lone Ranger find themselves in a similar conundrum, left twisting their narrative into pretzels in order to balance out the inexorably stereotypical nature of what is now its primary character. You can’t help but wonder why Depp and Verbinski didn’t just say to hell with this mythology, and start fresh with the Butch-and-Sundance-runaway-train-Western they so clearly wanted to do instead.
The Real Problem With a Lone Ranger Movie? It's the Racism, Stupid
An article at Time.com suggested that "the issue isn’t so much the casting as it is the character." Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations pointed out that Tonto is, unfortunately, one of just a few Native people--real or fictional--that non-Indians know of. The risk is that his quirks or character traits may be applied to an entire race: "Without an accurate pop-culture idea of a real-life Native American in moviegoers’ heads, Tonto is less of an individual character than he is a key piece of the popular image of a large and diverse population. The stereotype is particularly detrimental for its fantastical elements, [Keene] believes: when a real group of people seems as mystical as say, werewolves, in every pop-culture depiction of the group, it gets hard to pay any attention to the real people who are alive today and have real issues and achievements of their own."
In a piece for Slate entitled "Johnny Depp’s Tonto: Not as Racist as You Might Think. But Still Kind of Racist," Aisha Harris was more forgiving than others, but still couldn't get past the limitations of the source material. "Depp’s attempt to be a 'warrior' role model to all the American Indian kids lucky enough to watch him save the day fails—and for the simple reason that the original material is too entrenched in an essentially racist ideology."
It appears that, despite the filmmakers' intentions, The Lone Ranger did not reinvent Tonto or the Tonto-Ranger dynamic--and perhaps it's because America has simply moved on. Is there any reinventing of Uncle Remus from Song of the South, or Chop Chop from the old Blackhawk comic books? Arguably not. While a Native actor such as Adam Beach (often mentioned as a better fit for Tonto) might have been a more pleasing casting choice, in this case Depp's insistence on playing Tonto actually saved a Native actor the awkwardness of trying to sell viewers a story they were never going to buy.
By Annalee Newitz
It's hard to deny the similarities between Tonto and Jar Jar—both are clownish sidekicks to the true heroes of their stories, barely able to string four words together. But once in a while, they blunder their way into saving the day. Critics pointed to Jar Jar's accent and behavior as mirroring stereotypes of Caribbean people; still, it was possible for George Lucas to argue that sometimes a Gungan is just a Gungan. Obviously, nobody can make that argument with Tonto. Jar Jar is a racial stereotype by inference, while Tonto is pure, uncut racial stereotype.
Just in case you didn't get the stereotype message, though, the movie opens with an aged Tonto at 1930s sideshow, standing in a diorama labeled, "The Noble Savage in his Native Habitat." OK, thanks movie. This bit, and Tonto's frequent "stupid white man" comments, are supposed to make us think the movie is somehow in on a joke about racism with us. We can all just wink and nudge each other over how ridiculous those "noble savage" stereotypes are, right? Because nothing really proves that white people "get it" more than updating a racist Indian character invented in the 1930s with a white actor in facepaint and feathers, and having him speak in broken English to a dead crow.
So to return to my earlier question: How the hell did this happen? It's 2013 and we're still making movies where white guys play dumb Indians in a mythical version of the American west? I suppose picking Depp for Tonto is one way that this movie benefits from modern political transparency. It's more honest to have a white guy playing Tonto since the character is such a white fantasy of Indians anyway.
Ultimately the lesson I would take away from The Lone Ranger is that some stories just can't be rebooted. I'm reminded of King Kong, another famously racist story from the 1930s, full of ooga-booga natives and big black monkeys who are obsessed with teeny white ladies. Peter Jackson's reboot of King Kong was filled with the same kind of race fail as The Lone Ranger. There is just no way to contort those old-school racist adventures into fun, contemporary action movies. Their narrative foundations are built on stereotypes and social assumptions that don't work in the present day. Maybe they can be revived as dark satire, like Dead Man or Django Unchained—but even then, the risk of fail is pretty high.
There are already many reasons why the reboot frenzy in pop culture is impoverishing our abilities to tell fresh, challenging stories. But when a movie like The Lone Ranger gets remade like this, with its Tonto stereotype intact, we don't just starve ourselves creatively. We starve ourselves politically too.
But the formula will always be "white guy saves the day and preserves the status quo." He'll always be fighting "bad guys" while the US Army is hunting and killing Indians around him. That's a problem.
You might have to destroy the concept in order to save it. For instance, as I said before, make Tonto the Lone Ranger and the white guy his sidekick. Or make the Ranger a freedom fighter against the government, the Army, and the railroads destroying the Indians' way of life.
But then it wouldn't be the Lone Ranger everybody--well, a few people--loves. That's a problem too.
For more on Johnny Depp and Tonto, see Tonto = Captain Jack Sparrow and Depp Justifies Tonto's Stereotypes.
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