Johnny Depp as Tonto: The Space Between Well-Intentioned and WTF
Now that the new image of Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger has been released, the debate on whether it’s appropriate for him to play an American Indian has resurfaced in full. Depp will star alongside Armie Hammer in the adaptation of the ’50s TV series (and ’30s radio show) in the role of what’s traditionally been a sidekick character. However, Depp’s said he plans to turn that role on its head in order to better honor American Indians. Here’s a quote of his from an Entertainment Weekly interview about the character:
“I remember watching it as a kid, with Jay Silverheels and Clayton Moore, and going: ‘Why is the f-ing Lone Ranger telling Tonto what to do?’ I liked Tonto, even at that tender age, and knew Tonto was getting the unpleasant end of the stick here. That’s stuck with me.” And he continued: “I started thinking about Tonto and what could be done in my own small way to… ‘Eliminate’ isn’t possible – but reinvent the relationship, to attempt to take some of the ugliness thrown on the Native Americans, not only in The Lone Ranger, but the way Indians were treated throughout history of cinema, and turn it on its head.”
But here’s the thing about the history of cinema: it often includes instances of whites playing people of color, American Indians included. Call it racebending, whitewashing, whatever: an awful lot of Caucasian folks have taken it upon themselves to play ethnicities they have little or no connection to over the years. And Johnny Depp has–out of the goodness of his heart?–added himself to the list.
Apparently, Depp’s way of legitimizing his role as Tonto has been to say that he’s got some American Indian lineage. As he put it to Entertainment Weekly:
“I guess I have some Native American somewhere down the line. 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.”
Whatever heritage Depp is claiming here, it’s clear that he doesn’t know exactly what it is. Which betrays the fact that he doesn’t quite identify with being American Indian himself. But interestingly enough, he co-wrote, directed and starred in a film about a modern American Indian in 1997 titled The Brave. So at the very least, Depp seems to feel a genuine solidarity toward the peoples. But once again, he’s made clear that he considers himself a white man rather than an American Indian, at least when you consider this quote of his from Entertainment Weekly:
“I always felt Native Americans were badly portrayed in Hollywood films over the decades… It’s a real opportunity for me to give a salute to them. Tonto was a sidekick in all the Lone Rangerseries. [This film] is a very different approach to that partnership.”
As the Sante Fe New Mexican has noted, and the Racebending nonprofit has echoed, Depp referred to American Indians as “them” instead of “us” during his interview. Making his “salute”–while perhaps well-intentioned–just another example of a white actor costing nonwhite actors an opportunity to represent themselves. Besides, as skeptics have scoffed around the blogosphere, we we would all take Depp to task if he claimed to be an eighth black and wanted to salute African-Americans with a slave role. But instead, issues of American Indian appropriation are met with the usual silence from the majority, and the fact that Depp is allowed to get away with his self-serving “conscience” is pretty frickin’ tonto.
Photo courtesy of IMDB.
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