As you may know, recently, Disney and director Gore Verbinski released a reimagining of the classic radio series, The Lone Ranger, starring Armie Hammer as the titular character and Johnny Depp as the “sidekick”, Tonto. I was, upon first hearing of its upcoming release a few months ago, relatively excited. A western starring Johnny Depp. Sounds cool. I liked Rango. But upon closer inspection, the movie really began to fall apart for me. In the following paragraphs, I explain why.
(Note: This was in response to an article my mom shared to my facebook wall. The article in question can be found here. The articles from which I drew my information are here and here, the artist’s “about me” page is here, and the painting can be found here)
First of all, I wouldn’t NECESSARILY call this portrayal racist. My first instinct is that yes, this is racism and therefore gross, BUT having read the article you posted, I’d say it’s more culturally insensitive than anything. Clearly, Depp is sincere when he says he’s trying to do something good for the Native American people, “trying” being the key word.
The problems here are as follows: Johnny Depp is not Native American. He supposedly has some Cherokee blood, but the character Tonto is a full-blooded Potawatomi. Depp is not. He’s a white guy. This is called white-washing, and is not okay for a few very big reasons. One, because Johnny is predominantly white, he cannot have full insight into the trials faced by the Powatomi people (or any Native American people for that matter). He is trying to “save” the character from a history of misrepresentation and racist stereotyping, to bring light to the subject of the Native American people’s suffering — but the story he’s trying to tell here is not his. He is not intimately connected with the culture of the Powatomi people and so cannot realize the full cultural value of their traditions and rituals because they are not his. He is not personally hurt (hurt on their behalf, almost certainly — sympathy is not constrained to one culture) by the sufferings they have faced because they are not his sufferings.
For another thing, Tonto is a PRIME example of the underrepresentation of Native American people in Western media. I cannot think of ONE Native American character who is portrayed as an actual person rather than a stereotype based on sensationalism and paranoia. Of these portrayals, Tonto is probably the most famous. The problem here is that, when a character is Native American in a way that matters, where it is an integral part of the character’s life and family and way of doing things, it is over-exaggerated, stereotyped, and reduced to dancing wildly around fires and speaking in broken English and SOMETIMES they have SPIRIT ANIMALS because it’s MYSTICAL. There are no famous, popular, mainstream portrayals of Native American people living as actual people who follow their own traditions just like everyone else does, the traditions being unique to them but the act of following them being universal. Native Americans are not treated as people. And the one time they attempt to portray one as a person (whether or not they succeed is… questionable) they cast, rather than a Native American, a white person. If a Native American man wants to play a character who is Native American in a way beyond skin-color, he must play a stereotype. If a white director is going to cast a character who is Native American in a way beyond skin-color who is more than a stereotype, he’s going to… cast a white guy??? Why? What kind of sense is that supposed to make?
Now we look at the costuming. At first, everyone was just annoyed because the costume looks very similar to the Jack Sparrow outfit. However, Depp has stated that his costume was inspired by a painting of a “Native American” man that really spoke to him. That’s a little more understandable. But upon doing some research into the painting (I Am Crow, by Kirby Sattler) we find that the artist is… white. “Without personal history”, who “does not denote tribal affiliation” and wants to “satisfy his audience’s sensibilities of the subject without the constraints of having to adhere to historical accuracy”.
More sensationalism and stereotypes without any sensitivity to culture or history created by a white guy?
Huh. Sounds familiar.
Tonto’s costume is in no way connected to any Native American tribe — certainly not the Powatomi tribe. I mean, honestly, a stuffed crow on his head. What. Consequently, Tonto is entirely disconnected from actual Native American cultures and history. He cannot represent them accurately because he himself is not represented accurately.
As a white person with no Native American blood whatsoever, I understand and appreciate that white people (generally) feel bad and want to make things better. We WANT to be respectful and tell the stories right. But they’re not our stories to tell. And by using white directors, white actors, white artists, we are MAKING them ours (white people taking things from non-white peoples — also sounds familiar) and, with the best of intentions, twisting and convoluting them until, once again, they are nothing more than stereotypes.
And an entire race of people with multiple tribes and cultures and ways of living continues to go unrepresented and unappreciated. And that’s just really not okay.
Below this, I went on to gripe (with a sudden loss of grammar skills) about the artist and his need to sensationalize Native American culture, rather than just paint the real thing, because, you know, clearly, entire tribes and families and traditions that are completely different from our own and have existed for hundreds and hundreds of years are just really not fascinating or beautiful or mystical enough to be interpreted artistically. No, you have to turn it into a sensationalist fantasy world that pales in comparison to the deep well of the actual thing. Brilliance.