When I learned they were going to make a movie of “The Lone Ranger,” I took it as just another example of the paucity of creativity in Hollywood. When I learned that it was another Disney “reboot,” I said “Ah.”
When I learned that they’d cast Johnny Depp in the role of Tonto, I just shook my head. Another case of the “red face” minstrel show, I thought. Are there zero competent actors of native blood in America? When I learned that Depp had essentially cast himself in the role, I said, “Ah.”
When I learned that Depp’s “look” for the whole film was going to be KISS-like black and white face paint and a dead raven headpiece, I thought that, while such might have been appropriate for a ceremony (depending on the tribe and the situation), it seemed off-the-mark as daily appearance. When I learned that it was taken from a painting, and a painting by a non-native painter at that, I said, “Ah.
When I learned that a Comanche family had formally adopted Depp, and that the movie had received the blessings of the Navajo nation, and when I read that Chris Eyre (“Smoke Signals” and “The Doe Boy“) had spoken favorably of the project, I thought perhaps I should reevaluate my opinions. When I read Chris Eyre’s response after having seen the movie, I said, “Ah.”
When the reviews for this 2013 reboot of “The Lone Ranger” began to come in, they were overwhelmingly bad. As reaction to Depp as Tonto began to come in, it was almost universally bad.
From whites, that is.
The native community’s reaction? You can sum it up in one word: Meh.
Of course, there are some in the native community who are incensed, just as there are some who are strongly supportive. On the flip side, some in the non-native community are very supportive, notably the Lone Ranger Fan Club (seriously? there is such a thing?). In general, though, the divisions are stark. Whites find the portrayal awful, ridiculous, and (at best) insensitive, while native reaction is basically (if I might put a British phrase into their mouths), “It’s nothing to do with me.”
Why? Why this one-sided response from the hegemony and this tepid response from the population who (whites think) should be the most outraged?
Simple. The native population of this country has a much (much) lower expectation of whites than we do of ourselves. In short, we’ve never done it right before, so why would anyone expect we’d start to do it right, now? Especially when starting with something that has such a woefully racist history (“The Lone Ranger”) and a company that has such a woefully racist track record (Disney)?
From what I’ve read, reaction in the native community is nuanced, realistic (some might say “jaded”), and pragmatic.
Why Depp instead of a native actor? Because it’s a big blockbuster movie and Depp will bring in the bucks. As to the inaccuracies of Tonto’s appearance? To quote Eyre, “It’s Hollywood’s invention of a Native American. It’s a farce, and his character is a farce character.” In other words, it’s a movie, people, and you never go to the movies for historical accuracy, especially not a summer blockbuster.
Balancing these opinions, many in the community are pleased by some of the behind-the-scenes aspects of the movie. There was broad use of native actors in supporting roles and as extras. The film was shot on native land, and the production company poured a lot of money into local businesses, helping the local economy. Disney put a chunk of money into the American Indian College Fund.
And, on a larger scale, the movie has reinvigorated the discussion around the portrayal of Native Americans in film, and that’s never a bad thing.