The Lone Ranger, out in theaters July 3, will be battling other contenders for box-office gold during this Independence Day weekend. A high-budget romp of a western film that’s action-packed and full of comedic relief provided by Johnny Depp–who plays Native American sidekick Tonto to masked, ex-Texas-Ranger Kemosabe (Armie Hammer)–is overshadowed by the fact that Depp looks like a “white man” (a phrase repeated throughout the film) portraying… a Native American.
Is this our generation’s version of blackface in minstrel shows or the yellowface portrayals of Charlie Chan?
Disney and Depp have taken great pains to prove that it’s not. The studio spent months working to win the favor of Native Americans, including donating proceeds from The Lone Ranger‘s world premiere to the American Indian College Fund. Depp consulted Native American leaders about Tonto’s character and was even adopted as an honorary Comanche tribe member by LaDonna Harris, president of Americans for Indian Opportunity, in a ceremony in her backyard in May. Also, Depp claims he has some Native American ancestry.
“I guess I have some Native American (in me) somewhere down the line,” Depp said in a 2011 interview with EW. “My great grandmother was quite a bit of Native American, she grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian. Makes sense in terms of coming from Kentucky, which is rife with Cherokee and Creek.”
At a special screening of The Lone Ranger for Comanches, tribe members who received free tickets seemed impressed with Depp’s portrayal of Native Americans. “He did a perfect job as Tonto; he was phenomenal,” said Kimberly De Jesus in an interview with NPR. “When he spoke our language, he did pretty good at it. Must have practiced a lot, actually.”
As sensitive as Depp tried to be in honoring the traditions and respect of Native American culture, it’s hard to ignore the fact that some stereotypes as well as ideas on Native American mysticism are rampant in the film. In director Gore Verbinski’s (Pirates of the Caribbean, Rango) re-imagined version of the popular TV show of the same name–which premiered in 1949 about an unconventional duo fighting for justice in a vigilante sort of way–Tonto is much different from the original character. The original Tonto was played by Native Canadian actor Jay Silverheels and was on the more stoic side with slicked back hair, a thin band going across his forehead, and donning leather fringes. His character was also criticized for perpetuating stereotypes. Depp’s Tonto has his face covered in cracked white paint and black, painted lines running down–reminiscent of Brandon Lee’s goth make-up in 1994’s The Crow. (Plus, a dead crow sits on top of Depp’s head throughout his portrayal–perhaps an homage?) The Huffington Post reported that the inspiration for the makeup was based off of a Kirby Sattler painting from the 19th century, and a Comanche adviser on the film told them it was not completely far-fetched. However, all the other Comanche tribe members in the film go sans-makeup, and Tonto ends up looking more like a witch doctor–and he does indeed play the role by bringing Kemosabe back to life at one point in the film–with the only possible explanation given in the film is that he’s lost his mind. The addition of the excessive face paint makes it feel like the filmmakers were trying to hide Depp’s face and the fact that they could have cast someone who is more Native American.
But, with that, the discussion opens up to the fact that Depp is part-Native-American and questions what percentage of being Native American makes it acceptable for portraying such a role. “It was something I felt a pretty intense passion for, for a long time,” Depp told MTV News. “Just taking into consideration the way that Native Americans have been portrayed in old-school TV series as sidekicks or savages. I just thought it was a way to flip it completely on its head and an opportunity to send great respect and thanks to the Native Americans for all they’ve lived through and went through in their existence. I guess it was to portray the Native American with the integrity and dignity that they deserve.”
Should Depp be the one to change those perceptions? In some ways, Tonto plays more of the protagonist and Kemosabe as a sidekick in this revamped version. There is no denying it that Depp is brilliant and has become a Charlie Chaplin-esque actor. He is a more lighthearted and comedic Tonto through his facial expressions and gestures (not too dissimilar to his Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean). Although the film tries to paint a different picture of Native Americans–not as savages–it does open with Tonto as a weathered elderly man labeled as “The Noble Savage” on display in a circus-like environment, as he retells his adventures with Kemosabe to a young boy.
Others have said that the film should be taken at entertainment value, and Depp took sensitive steps to portray Tonto. Regardless, there will be many folks offended by it, even if they aren’t Native American.