Johnny Depp Takes Tonto Character From Racist to Merely Culturally Insensitive

Illustration for article titled Johnny Depp Takes Tonto Character From Racist to Merely Culturally Insensitive

Look, anytime you're trying to update a fictional character created for the radio in 1938, you're going to run into some issues. Why Disney decided to dredge up the ancient Western franchise is anyone's guess, but The Lone Ranger is a go, hitting theaters in May 2013. The flick started shooting last week in New Mexico, and Johnny Depp plays Tonto, the Native American friend/sidekick/companion of the Masked Man.


Tonto, as a character, was created so that The Lone Ranger would have someone to talk to. On the radio, he was played by English actor John Todd. On television, Tonto was played by Jay Silverheels, who was a Canadian Mohawk born Harold Smith (he changed his name after he started getting work in Westerns and was subsequently typecast).

Johnny Depp went into the flick being fully aware that Tonto is a problematic character. He tells Entertainment Weekly: "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." But Depp thinks he is doing a good thing: "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." Um, okay, let's just be clear here: With one Disney movie you alone will fix this terrible issue? And will you be speaking broken pidgin English like TV Tonto?

Depp is allegedly part Cherokee, but as Paul Constant at The Stranger asks, shouldn't a Native American actor be the one who fixes the way Native Americans have been represented in film?

Depp worked with Pirates of the Caribbean costume designer Penny Rose on the Tonto ensemble, which seems to involve feathers, facepaint and a dead raven worn as a headdress. Pretty sure none of it is authentic to the Potawatomi, the Indian nation Tonto supposedly came from. (Of course, since he and his origin were made up by some white guys, TV-series Tonto didn't dress like a Potawatomi either — and the Potawatomi did not live in the Southwestern states where The Lone Ranger took place.)

Obviously The Lone Ranger will not be a realistic movie; it's a Disney-fied Western adventure — in which Tonto is not billed as a sidekick but a "Native American spirit warrior." Right now we don't know much about the plot or Tonto's story, but it sure looks like, if there is such a thing as redface, this is it.

'The Lone Ranger': Johnny Depp Works With 'Pirates' Designer Penny Rose For Tonto Costume [The Hollywood Reporter]
Tonto and The Lone Ranger Ride Again! [Jerry Bruckheimer's Twitter]
"The Lone Ranger" remake thrusts Tonto into the spotlight [CBS News]
Johnny Depp's 'Lone Ranger' starts shooting in New Mexico [Entertainment Weekly]
Johnny Depp as Tonto: How Racist Is That? [The Stranger]



I know Depp's part Cherokee, but damn, has no one seen Adam Beach? I mean, the dude is at least as sexy as Depp, probably cleaner, and I need to see him...act... more.