Johnny Depp as Tonto: Is The Lone Ranger Racist?

Just how problematic is the actor's depiction of the Native American character?

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Disney’s The Lone Ranger opens in theaters today, but debate over the big-budget western epic has been raging online for years, ever since Johnny Depp first said in 2011 that he wanted to make a movie of the radio and TV classic — and that, rather than playing the masked man, he wanted to play Tonto. As might be expected when a prominent actor decides to take on a character who is specifically a race other than his own, the controversy wasn’t far behind. Is it O.K. for Depp to play Tonto? Is it ever O.K. for someone to play a race other than his own?

Though American audiences are probably more familiar with the history of blackface, “redface” is likewise fraught territory. (Here’s a recent example: Michelle Williams dressed in stereotypical braids and feathers for a fashion spread this past March, and the response from the Native American Journalists Association that when a nonnative person dresses up as a Native American it leads to problems, even if the magazine’s editors don’t see them.) Particularly for Disney, a studio with a track record that’s checkered at best when it comes to Native American characters — see Peter Pan — the decision to cast Depp has raised big questions that are unlikely to be answered by one movie.

Years later, as the movie finally arrives in theaters, the debate continues.

The Twitter consensus for Dunham landed pretty firmly in the “be offended” camp but, for a number of reasons, the answer is more complicated than “if you have to ask, it’s racist.” Both detractors and defenders agree that, while it would have been a nice opportunity for a Native American actor to play the part, the issue isn’t so much the casting as it is the character.

(MORE: Who Was That Masked Celebrity?)

And, though the Onion’s satirical headline (“Ecstatic American Indians Praise ‘The Lone Ranger'”) may make it seem like an impossibility, there actually are some Native Americans who do praise the movie. One of those people is Comanche Chairman Wallace Coffey.

Coffey is an elected official for the Comanche people and was, according to a Disney spokesperson, an unofficial but respected adviser on the film. He says he doesn’t pay much attention to casting choices, but, as one with a deep interest in the story, he thinks it would have been nice to have a Native person starring in a big Hollywood movie. Still, on the day he spoke to TIME about The Lone Ranger, he had already seen the movie three times — and was looking forward to a fourth.

“I think it was a very realistic portrayal of a Native American. It’s got drama and it’s got a lot of comedy; it fits right in with Comanche culture because we are well known as a humorous people,” he says. “In some instances [at screenings], it was only the Comanches that laughed, because we could relate to it.” Coffey adds that he was pleased by the spiritual elements of the Tonto character, as an accurate enough nod to the relationship between a Native American of that time period and the environment in which he lived. Depp, who has said he has some Native American heritage (but unsure about tribe or extent), has also personally reached out to the Comanche people, an effort that Coffey says has been much appreciated. Depp was made an honorary member of the Comanche nation more than a year ago, and he attended the Comanche Fair last October as an honored guest.

Coffey says he’s happy whenever he sees Native Americans in pop culture, which includes those non-Depp characters in The Lone Ranger (played by actors like Gil Birmingham and Saginaw Grant). “This is just the beginning, is my thinking. It opens the doors for more creative visions with regard to Native Americans in the future,” he says. If there’s a sequel, he hopes even more American Indians get to be involved in it.

(MORE: 10 Questions for Sherman Alexie)

On the other side of the issue is Adrienne Keene, a blogger and graduate student who has been following Depp’s vision of Tonto since the beginning. Her popular blog, Native Appropriations, tracks and dissects usage of American Indian culture — and that’s where several of Dunham’s followers directed her to for more information on the topic. Keene says that, while she was at first cautiously optimistic about what The Lone Ranger could do, the lead-up to the film’s release convinced her that the depiction of Tonto was extremely problematic.

“Before the initial photo [of Depp in character] even came out, there had been some discussion about the film and quotes from Johnny Depp saying that he wanted to use the film as an outlet to reimagine what the Hollywood Indian could look like. I was holding out some hope that maybe it was going to be O.K.,” Keene tells TIME, speaking of Depp’s desire to elevate Tonto from his sidekick role and reverse racial stereotypes. “Then they released the first still.” In her initial blog post on the subject, based solely on production stills and Depp’s statements, Keene wrote: “You guys, I’m pissed off. Like for real. I had a teensy-tiny bit of hope that this wouldn’t be another othering-stereotype-filled-horror, but clearly I was so wrong.”

Keene says that while many people have argued with her about why a fictional depiction in an action movie matters, she thinks the use of stereotypes in The Lone Ranger — Tonto’s communing with animals, his broken sentences, the hodge-podge of influences that went into his costume — will have a lasting legacy in American culture, compounding the very ideas that Depp has said he tried to reverse. At the heart of the matter is the fact that there just aren’t that many well-known American Indian characters out there, and the ones that do exist (Keene cites the werewolf characters from Twilight) play on stereotypes too. As such, there aren’t readily available representations for viewers to fall back on; without an accurate pop-culture idea of a real-life Native American in moviegoers’ heads, Tonto is less of an individual character than he is a key piece of the popular image of a large and diverse population. The stereotype is particularly detrimental for its fantastical elements, she believes: when a real group of people seems as mystical as say, werewolves, in every pop-culture depiction of the group, it gets hard to pay any attention to the real people who are alive today and have real issues and achievements of their own.

(MORE: 1952: The Lone Ranger Turns 20)

Now, Keene says, she’s glad about Depp’s casting because it means a Native person isn’t “embroiled in that mess.”

But she still feels like she’s in “a difficult place” for speaking out. For one thing, Disney has peppered the Lone Ranger promotional campaign with support for Native American causes — for example, money raised by the movie’s premiere event went to the American Indian College Fund — so a lot of good came out the Tonto question, although Keene sees those efforts as “damage control” that should have been done before anyone questioned the company’s actions. (Keene readily acknowledges that some people, like Coffey, disagree with her.)

As for Depp, he told NPR that his version of Tonto has to give a peek at the stereotypes that exist so that, when the stereotypes are flipped, the audience can recognize it. Well-meaning efforts aside, Keene doesn’t see it that way. “It would have been really cool and powerful if Tonto was just another guy who happened to be Indian, if they didn’t have to go into the whole mystical, spiritual fantasy element,” she says. “Just let Tonto be a person. That would be really powerful.”

121 comments
ChristianaT
ChristianaT

I love Johnny Depp. However, I was outraged to see redface and such racist Stereotypes in this day and age. It wouldn't be tolerated for a white actor to put on black face make up and sit in a cotton field eating Watermelon on the screen- I mean can you imagine the rage that would ensue? So why is this acceptable? Isn't this the same thing?


There are so many movies made for all white casts. When a leading position like this comes up shouldn't it be accommodated appropriately? And with a more down to earth feel than all of this mystical spiritual pish posh?

mike88
mike88

All minorities play Tonto to the Liberal Lone Ranger.

antiRacist is a code word for antiWhite

RickMynatt
RickMynatt

Actually MarkGraham  The character of Tonto is supposed to be Comanche which is Native American which is a race!  But if we are going to get upset over Johnny Depp playing Tonto then we should be upset when Eddie Murphy plays white people correct?  So people need to get off their high horses and accept that it's just a movie that's made to entertain that's all!!  Period!!!

MarkGraham
MarkGraham

Tonto is an American Indian, not a Native American.    Also, American Indian is not a race.

This article is racist, because America is racist and obsessed with race.

The press is responsibe for this racism.    The press spurs racism and racist language and racist agitation, because it generates revenue.

MattLedding
MattLedding

Ok, the real elephant in the room, which I only noticed after I moved to Spain.

"Tonto" means "stupid" in Spanish. 

Fran Striker claimed that he got the name from altering the consonants in the word "Bobo" (a caveman character he invented... and "Bobo" also means dumb.)

"Quien mas sabe" (kimosabe)  means "The one who knows more" in Spanish. 

Lot of coincidence there.  


JonasSamuelMcClure
JonasSamuelMcClure

I have to wonder, at what point in the movie is the character 'Tonto' meant to be displayed as an accurate portrayal of the American Indian culture, unless we are to assume that every Native American has been 'broken' by an incredibly horrific childhood trauma that would leave even the most skilled psychologist running to get their straight-jackets.

SmoothEdward1
SmoothEdward1

Oh, for God's sake, again with this politically correct nonsense. Depp is an actor who wanted to take on the challenge of playing the Tonto part. The movie would not have been made without his star power. Go see the movie, and you will see his Tonto is very smart and quite shrewd, and responsible for saving the his kind of bungling, incompetent Lone Ranger, on several occasions. The fact is a Native American for whom English was his second language would speak with an accent, and probably spoke using clipped sentences. Playing the character with those attributes doesn't make it racist, just accurate. I, for one, am sick of the thought police, and the media that panders to them every time a white person plays another race or ethnicity. If it was an Indian actor wanting to stretch his acting skills, or a Mexican, trying the same, and playing a white man, would these same people be complaining? No. They'd be saying to not allow it would be stereotyping the Indian actor.

VictoriaLeClairStowe
VictoriaLeClairStowe

JD a racist this makes me laugh.....and so not worth any additional comment!

mrc
mrc

as I read comments here, I wish each person who wants to rag out others would tell us about their own accomplishments first.

I think that might quiet things down a lot

Rojo
Rojo

Depp: "I guess I have some Native American (in me) somewhere down the line. My great grandmother was quite a bit of Native American, she grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian" 

"I guess"
"somewhere"
"down the line"
"quite a bit"
"Cherokee maybe Creek" 

That like saying "Italian maybe Welsh. What's the difference, they're both Europeans right?"

Even if Depp is 100% native and raised on sovereign territory, it doesn't make it right.
He should still be ashamed for perpetuating old Hollywood stereotypes.


aztecian
aztecian

johnny depp is a pretty little white boy...no male indian ever looked like a girlyboy.  what a joke.  we need someone like machete to play tonto...not a rich girlyboy.

TonySommer
TonySommer

It amuses me that all the buzz is about Johnny Depp playing Tonto. The fact is: Jay Silverheels set the bar very high back in the TV series. Yes, he was the loyal sidekick but Silverheels had the charisma and that wonderful voice to elevate the role.

Depp? He just pastes a dead bird on his head. That's all Johnny Depp ever has done. Weird costumes and makeup substituting for acting. The one time he played a real human being, playwright James Barie in "Finding Neverland," Depp was brilliant. Pity he abandoned that approach in favor of Halloween costumes.

What ruins this movie is that Armie Hammer is playing The Lone Ranger. He's a handsome young man and maybe even a pretty fair actor but the role traditionally calls for a heroic figure and Armie plays him as a wimp.

What were they thinking? Was Duane Johnson too busy to play the role? It really demands a superhero type. Armie just doesn't cut it and he brings the whole movie down with him.

DeeGratton
DeeGratton

I for one am very angry Mr Depp has always said he has native in his blood line..He has done a wonderful job as Tonto..People don't understand our culture and are too ignorant to educate themselves..He is never racist ..and haters need to get a life or a anger management class..

Augleigh
Augleigh

Most research sources say that Johnny Depp has a Cherokee background with both his parents but particularly strong on his mother's side. It's obvious in his features. Those cheekbones are not European. The Canadian aboriginal network, APTN has run every one of his movies and they only show movies that are about, or strongly feature, Native American/Canadians. That alone should confirm his native authenticity.

Native people are constantly telling us they had a special closeness to nature that whites never have had. It makes sense that an Indian, in 1869, would speak English in broken sentences. It was a second language, probably learned as an adult. I saw the portrayal as very respectful. Some of that portrayal is meant to be over the top because it is supposed to be funny. 

Geesh, don't people have a better use of time than to be constantly outraged because their perfect expectations are not being portrayed?  Next, we're going to be told that it is physically impossible to survive being thrown off a derailed, tumbling railroad car and not even get a bone broken, and that this portrayal only reinforces the illusion that movie stars are physically superior to the rest of us?

stevec
stevec

Growing up in Mandan, N.Dak, I became very familar with the Dakota Souix tribe. In 1958, my father was indoctrinated into the tribe as a full tribal chieftan in a fireside ceremony. Mac stood proud and strong with the other chiefs -  I will never forget it (we owned a restuarant there and my father would host the Fort Yates reservation kids in our place when no one else would). I became fnends with many of them and learned of their ways. They did not need attorneys - their word was their honor - they did not lie.  They did not need counselors or phychiatrists -  their love for their families was deep and consistent, never abusive. They did not need unemployment assistance - they all worked together at supplyng the tribe's need. They did not need outside help - they knew how to prosper off the land God gave them. They ere at one with life. Then the white man came and began taking it from them, bit by bit, bite by bite, until we had devoured it all except for tiny 'reservations'. We also gave them cholera, TB and other diseases. And we gave them alcohol, which began wiping them out for us.  I am an American and damn proud of it - my granddad fought in ww1, my dad served in ww2, I was in during nam and my son returned from Iraq 2 years ago. And if anyone came to my counrty and began claiming it as theirs, I have and I would stand and fight for it - with no remorse, shame or inhibition. The fact is we came and we stoled the native indians homes and land because they were 'savages' - we had the might which gave us the right. The last full blooded Souix Indian died in Dakota in 1959. He remebered how it had been, and as he died, he wept. Fini. Steve Crawford.

stolibulldog
stolibulldog

Johnny Depp is to acting what honey boo boo is to beauty!

worran1711
worran1711

Apparently Depp is part-descended from the Apache tribe long ago. Does he now qualify?! I thought actors were just that, when Olivier played Heathcliff in the 30's did anyone expect him to be a Yorkshireman? So i don;t see the problem here regardless of an actor's race. Bizarre.

PatriciaC.Smith
PatriciaC.Smith

its called acting.......acting. My grosh people complain about anything.

MichaelLittle
MichaelLittle

Fine, then I will.

1. Johnny Depp is a great actor, but not for the role of Tonto.
2. What the hell is wearing on this head? A dead crow? Why??? He looks ridiculously stupid. It's over the top. And we all know it was his idea being the eccentric that he is. With the clout he holds in Hollywood, they indulged him and let him look like a fool.
3. The guy who plays the Lone Ranger is an unknown and could not carry the movie. Hollywood needs to make money. They need to sell. Enter Johnny Depp.
4. The reason Johnny Depp got the part is not because he's a great actor. Hell, there are a lot of great actors. He got it because he lobbied very hard for it (kissed ass).
5. This would have a been a good opportunity for a Native American actor to rise further up in his career. And I'm willing to bet he would have presented the part with more dignity, not this silly war-painted, dead-bird-on-his-head crap that Johhny Depp concocted.
6. If I had to narrow it down, I'd say Adam Beach would have been a better choice.

My two cents...

Oh...and I just saw the trailer. He sounds as stupid as he looks.

FindoGask
FindoGask

Considering they usually have Italians playing us, a class actor like Jonny Depp is a step up. 

steelgoat67
steelgoat67

Geez, count the straw-men in the room.

CheyanneE.Lozano
CheyanneE.Lozano

First- everyone is entitled to an opinion. Second- as a movie lover and a Navajo (A native american group in Arizona mostly), I really loved the movie and how it dealt with the "race" issue.  I just saw it today and was completely happy with it.  Johnny Depp did a great job and I loved how much work was done to make this movie.  Even though some of the posts here say it was a comedy, I would have to disagree.  It was funny in parts but I thought it's subtle and very un-subtle commentary of the violence of the west was something that needed to be said.  As a Native American that got the full extent of American History, I did not grow up knowing that our "fore fathers" built this nation without the consideration of the people already living here.  See this on the Fourth of July just built on that idea of how forgotten that history is.

So to me, even if it is not "indian looking" Adam Beach (who is a great actor that I think did a great job in Cowboys Vs. Aliens)  it still showed something that people forget and I think continue to deny.  Why is the argument about whether or not Depp should have played the roll rather then why was this not done sooner?  This is way better then what my parents grew up with (raiding war crazy Indians on TV) and better then what I was raised with (No Indians mentioned anywhere).  I was overjoyed by how much it revolved around Tonto and how much of a hero he is in it rather then say AVATAR where they needed a "white man" to save their native race.  

I hope everyone goes to see this movie because its a great movie and I hope for more to come.

ChristianaT
ChristianaT

@mike88


I beg to differ... I don't think AntiRacist and AntiWhite are the same thing because racism is a factor in all parts of the world. Whites may be considered the majority in America and Europe however in China for example, a white man is the minority and may be subject to Racism. So with this logic, in this case AntiRacist would be a codeword for AntiChinese because they are the majority race in that land. Of course this is only a global perspective.  I suppose one could argue that AntiRacism means AntiDominant-race but to me that simply seems irrational because it implies that everyone in the dominant race would be racist and believe anyone of another race to be inferior. 


I am mixed-race (half white) and that could make me biased.

aliberaldoseofskepticism
aliberaldoseofskepticism

Depp's just a standard Hollywood wannabe really. Even the crow on Depp's head is an homage to Kirby Sattler, whose paintings, by the way, seem to be in the profile of every wannabe Indian's Facebook or Tumblr ever.

kathiehansen
kathiehansen

So a Mexican would make a better Indian? Lol your all crazy

MuricanBob
MuricanBob

aztecian you are such a fake. Get over it..

EuphoricDelirium713
EuphoricDelirium713

@TonySommer

I'm sorry but... Dwayne Johnson???! You must be joking!

This is obviously my opinion alone, for I did not see the original television show, so perhaps I don't deserve a say, but the point is, Armie Hammer's character grew to become to Lone Ranger, than simply starting out as some heroic saviour. He abandoned his fears and "wimpiness" to become something more. To become the Lone Ranger. Who knows? Maybe this is just my perspective of things, but there you go.

aztecian
aztecian

@DeeGratton oh yeah...sure, what is he 1% native?  be real...he should have stayed away from the part.  another white person claiming to be cherokee or some other tribe...this is so ridiculous....are you his pr manager?

ColleenLloyd
ColleenLloyd

@Augleighidiotic BS. High cheekbones are found in Euros. Sayin just don't make it so and ALL FACTUAL RESEARCH shows there is no native ancestor in JD's family, oh that's just too bad but facts are facts. Don't you have a better use of time than to come on and complain because natives are speaking up and not invisible and your white privilege isn't everyone's reality?

ColleenLloyd
ColleenLloyd

@worran1711Wrong. In order to be effective at being snarky you need to be right and have a valid point. FAIL.

aliberaldoseofskepticism
aliberaldoseofskepticism

Tonto was the first role actually played by an Indian. I mean, remember, early Hollywood was...Let's put it this way, the most sympathetic portrayal of Indians for the first half of the 20th century was in a biopic of Johann Sutter from Germany. In the 30s. /godwin

stolibulldog
stolibulldog

@worran1711 

So, In your world does Al Jolson get a pass because he was a white male in black face?

aliberaldoseofskepticism
aliberaldoseofskepticism

Who remembers The Brave? He was also a snuff film star in The Brave. Clearly, that didn't happen IRL either.

ColleenLloyd
ColleenLloyd

@PatriciaC.Smithyea you sure do, like complaining that native people are speaking up about this racist stereotypical movie and not invisible. Obviously you just don't get it. Maybe you should get out more and meet real natives and not just ones with birds on their heads.

aliberaldoseofskepticism
aliberaldoseofskepticism

"But she's such a talented actress!"

-every description an anorexic blonde playing an obese black woman ever

stolibulldog
stolibulldog

@PatriciaC.Smith

No offense, but that's one butt ugly avatar you're sporting!

And, FYI it's gosh, not grosh.  Just sayin'

ColleenLloyd
ColleenLloyd

@CheyanneE.LozanoThat's living proof that a lot of Navs are colonized and don't get it either. Have fun hanging around that fort.

aliberaldoseofskepticism
aliberaldoseofskepticism

Wait, your name is Cheyenne? Isn't that like if a French couple named their kid Italian?

Lulz aside (and this movie is only good for the lulz), nobody liked Avatar, either the blue aliens or the piss-poor attempt to franchise the cartoon of the same name.

MuricanBob
MuricanBob

aztecian "you sound like an idiot". Get lost

Alyssa1982
Alyssa1982

@stolibulldog @worran1711 


There is a difference in comparing Depp in costume with Black face. Black face was MOCKING black people, portraying them as stupid, oafish, clumsy - it distorted their faces and made them look like clowns. They were made the butt of jokes, and on top of that, they would do that because they didn't even want a black person paid and on film.

You can maybe draw a comparison to Japanese Kabuki and Elizabethan actors, where women were not allowed to act upon stage for various reasons, where men were dressed as women with make up to look female.

I would venture that this is probably a closer comparison to what Depp is doing. 




EuphoricDelirium713
EuphoricDelirium713

@aliberaldoseofskepticism 

Actually, with all due respect, you could not be more incorrect.

Avatar was, in fact, extremely popular, going as far as to rate an 83% on the well-known critic site, Rotten Tomatoes, and had 82% of the focus audience say that they liked it! So, by nobody, you mean that you yourself did not like it. And that's okay! After all, everyone is allowed their own opinions, whether it be with religion, media, and even this whole (slightly stupid) debate about Johnny Depp's rascist-ness.

All though, yes, I must agree with you. Avatar - The Last Airbender, was certainly terrible. All though I did adore the TV show when I was younger, so I was devastated to see what it had been reduced to, film-wise.