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Depp as Tonto? Hollywood could try a lot harder

Fri., July 5, 2013

Johnny Depp tackles the role of Tonto in Jerry Bruckheimer’s film “The Lone Ranger.”
Johnny Depp tackles the role of Tonto in Jerry Bruckheimer’s film “The Lone Ranger.”

The moment it was announced that Johnny Depp would be portraying Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s “faithful Indian companion,” in Disney’s big screen adaptation of the famed 1930s radio serial, the Internet began frothing at the mouth.

A quick Google search for the keywords “Lone Ranger,” “Johnny Depp” and “racist” produces a number of online editorials, a lot of which were written before the movie had even started filming. Many are thoughtful, well-researched think pieces about the state of ethnicity in Hollywood, while others angrily declare prejudice. One even likens Depp’s turn as a Native American to Al Jolson’s blackface number in “The Jazz Singer.”

Most, if not all, of these writers had yet to see a single frame of “The Lone Ranger,” but already a nerve had been hit.

Before Depp, the most famous portrayal of Tonto was by Canadian actor Jay Silverheels in the “Lone Ranger” television series, which aired from 1949 to 1957. Silverheels, whose birth name was Harold Smith, was of Mohawk descent, and his casting in a major role on network TV was certainly progressive for the time. In the 1958 feature “The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold,” Silverheels even shares a screen credit with Clayton Moore, who played the titular masked man.

But Silverheels reportedly resented Tonto’s role as a second fiddle to the Lone Ranger: He’s strong but subservient, and his lines are delivered in monosyllabic Tarzan-speak (“Me Tonto, me take care of you”). Tonto was such an iconic character that Silverheels never escaped its shadow, and he continued to play stoic Native figures until his acting career was sidelined by health problems. He died in 1980 from complications following a stroke.

Several decades later, and Native American actors continue to get short shrift. There are a few notable successes, including ubiquitous character actor Graham Greene and “Smoke Signals” star Adam Beach, but for the most part, these actors are relegated to the roles of mystics, seers and savages.

When casting the new “Lone Ranger,” certainly producers could have found an unknown, full-blooded Native American actor to play Tonto. After all, Armie Hammer, who portrays the Lone Ranger in director Gore Verbinski’s new film, is far from a household name. But the fact is Depp’s presence guarantees big box office dollars, and I doubt cultural sensitivity crosses the minds of studio executives once they have dollar signs in their eyes.

But Depp, who claims to maybe have some Cherokee blood in him, has said that his primary intention was to subvert the stereotypical portrayal of the Native American community, and that his Tonto will be shrewder and less submissive to the Lone Ranger. Despite Depp’s supposed good will, and despite his hopes that his version of Tonto will alter Hollywood’s ethnic landscape, he’s still another white guy playing a role that doesn’t fit his racial requirements.

I really can’t come down on either side of this fence – the side that screams indignation at Depp’s casting, or the side that shrugs it off – since I haven’t seen “The Lone Ranger” and can’t evaluate Depp’s performance. Although I doubt that Depp or the filmmakers had any cruel intentions, maybe their ambivalence is part of the problem.

But I think the issue here is much broader than who should or shouldn’t be allowed to play certain roles, or which ethnicities can and can’t be faked. The fact is, certain demographics aren’t represented in Hollywood, and the sad truth is, you’re more likely to see a nonwhite actor playing a villain or a terrorist than you will, say, a traditional action hero.

I relish diversity in cinema, but we aren’t getting enough of it, especially in mainstream fare. I want a film to transport me to a place I’ve never been, to introduce me to people I don’t normally encounter in my daily life, to broaden my worldview and deepen my cultural perceptions. Isn’t that why we go to the movies in the first place?

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