Shame Day: Johnny Depp and The Lone Ranger

I feel like I shouldn’t have to say too much about this. Really, this feels, to me anyway, like it hardly warrants an explanation.

Johnny Depp, a white actor, playing Tonto, a character traditionally portrayed as being of the Potawatomi tribe, in Disney’s upcoming The Lone Ranger is really dumb. “Dumb” is but one of the many four-letter words I could be using to describe it.


Really, though, I should let Mr. Depp speak for himself. He’s an actor a lot of people greatly respect given his extensive acting career, and I think that he should be given the opportunity to explain (1) why he took on the role, and (2) why his character appears the way he does.

So, Why Does He Want To Be Tonto?

From an interview he did with Rolling Stone, quoted by another website, since that article isn’t currently available online:

“I wanted to maybe give some hope to kids on the reservations. … They’re living without running water and seeing problems with drugs and booze. But I wanted to be able to show these kids, ‘F*** that! You’re still warriors, man.’ ”

I would respond to this, but I think it would be so much better if an actual Native American did, so I’ll tag in tumblr user ayiman and let him take over for me:

I’ve been fighting battles my whole life.  My cousins around the world have been fighting battles too, been fighting a hell of a lot harder than I have, and the beast we’re all fighting plays for fuckin’ keeps, man.

and you know…

…It wasn’t that long ago that I had ancestors hunting buffalo from horseback.  Ever been up close to one? I’ve seen them knock over tractors.

Thanks all the same for the patronizing bullshit, Johnny but,

One of my uncles worked as a consultant training militaries in Africa in the wake of their independence from Britain, after his discharge following the Battle of Kaepyong.

My grandfather lost half of his left hand in WWII fighting for a country that didn’t give a shit about him.

One of my mentors received a Nobel Peace Medal, an Eagle feather and official recognition for the roles he played in Cyprus and Bosnia.

I learned how to hunt, how to handle a rifle, a knife and a bow, when I was still in elementary school.

I don’t need some rich white actor from Hollywood telling me that I’m still a fucking warrior.  I’ve been surrounded by warriors my whole life.

One of the only things ayiman doesn’t address is how culturally insensitive it can be to even refer to Native Americans as warriors in the first place. Imagine Depp was talking about impoverished Japanese children, and replace the word “warriors” with “samurai” and I think you’ll see what I’m getting at. It fringes on this entire idea that a plethora of different cultures [I am not about to lump all Native American tribes and people groups under a single one] can be boiled down to some sort of noble, ancient  idea that popular culture has about them.

Okay, So Why Does He Look Like That?

Hoo, boy. Okay. First of all, I’m going to pull a quote from that same Rolling Stone article I drew from above:

“I wanted him to be no joke. … First of all, I wouldn’t f*** with someone with a dead bird on their head. Second of all, he’s got the f***ing paint on his face, which scares me.”

How afraid Johnny Depp is of his own appearance in the film aside, let’s dig deeper into the origins of his costume. According to Entertainment Weekly one day Mr. Depp saw the painting I Am Crow [pictured on the right], by artist Kirby Sattler, and thought:

That’s it. The stripes down the face and across the eyes … it seemed to me like you could almost see the separate sections of the individual, if you know what I mean.

There’s this very wise quarter, a very tortured and hurt section, an angry and rageful section, and a very understanding and unique side. I saw these parts, almost like dissecting a brain, these slivers of the individual. That makeup inspired me.

Every one of these “separate sections,” each of these “slivers of the individual,” is a stereotype of Native Americans. While he may believe that he’s broadening our perspective about them he actually ends up narrowing it by reinforcing the idea that these sections or categories even exist to start with.

That same EW article had a few lines from the the painter, Sattler, who explained his art as such:

While being broadly based in a historical context, my paintings are not intended to be viewed as historically accurate. I used the combination of face paint and  headdress as an artistic expression to symbolize the subject’s essence and his affinity to the Crow.

In other words, not only did Mr. Depp choose to base his look off of a painting [his personal reasons for doing so aside], he chose to base his look off of a painting that’s not even correct. It’s an illustration founded on a white artist’s idea of what Native Americans are “supposed” to look like.

And he didn’t even interpret the painting correctly [taken from the same article]:

It just so happened Sattler had painted a bird flying directly behind the warrior’s head. It looked to me like it was sitting on top.

It is literally layers of inaccuracy.

But Wait, Isn’t Johnny Depp Part Native American?

Let’s assume, for a moment, that Johnny Depp having Native American ancestry is a reason enough for us to do away entirely with accurately depicting a Comanche man [tribe changed in the film] and also nullifies his fairly racist statements.

Entertainment Weekly provides a few more  lines from the actor, who described his family background:

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.

Indian Country Today takes issue with his assessment. The Professor of Theatre at UCLA’s School of Theatre, Film and Television, Hanay Geiogamah states:

Disney relies upon the ignorance of the public to allow that ambiguity to exist.

If Depp had any legitimate blood of any tribe, Disney would definitely have all the substantial proof of that already.  It’s not that hard to establish tribal connections.

While I don’t think that him having Native American ancestry is reason to hand-wave away his above comments, it would, at the very least, allow Disney some footing in the controversy over hiring a white actor to portray a Native American. I fully agree with Geiogamah; if they had the proof they would just use it.

Don’t Watch The Movie

I don’t normally say this kind of thing, but I’m going to ask that, if you don’t believe the casting choice or Depp’s motivations to take the role are right, to not see the film. I’m going to ask that you only pay for media that you fully support, and to not just use the excuse “it’s just a movie, it’s not a big deal.”

Accurate racial portrayal is a big deal. Racism and racial sensitivity are big deals. If you refuse to watch this movie and a friend asks why not, you can tell them, and that in and of itself is a huge thing. More people need to know, and if even a handful tell their friends that’s increasing awareness; that’s a very small step towards change. And hey, that’s $11 you’re not spending, and I know you’ve probably got something else you could put that money towards.


16 responses to “Shame Day: Johnny Depp and The Lone Ranger

  1. Hi Evan, now I understand where you are coming from. I agree with your assessment of the inappropriateness of using a caucasian actor to play a role of a first nation person. I am sure there some first nation actors around that can play the role. Remember that actor from Artic Air (Canadian show). Keep writing from a non bias view. It helps to be a third culture kid!

  2. You do know the guy’s been made an honorary member of the Comanche nation, right?

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  4. Thank you! It makes sense.

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  6. I thought someone who purports to be as learned as yourself would understand that Disney is a pastiche of life/history. Fortunately I was able to watch the film with an open mind before reading your somewhat biased blog.
    If the First Nation Americans were under/misrepresented in this film, then the same stands for all other nations. All the characters portrayed (with the exception of the Chinese and the Comanche Tribesmen) had modern American accents when, if Disney were to be taken seriously, there would have been a mixture of English, Scottish, Irish, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Welsh………. Need I go on? For goodness sake even Tom Wilkinson OBE ( a great English actor) had an American accent!!
    Unfortunately all your writing appears to do is add weight to the oppression of the minorities you claim to represent, giving them permission to wallow in the tragedy that is their history, rather than empowering them to move forward with pride.
    Sadly what comes across, although possibly well intentioned, is middle class, do gooding, political correctness………………

    • First and foremost, what I’m asking for is for film studios in general, by no means singling out Disney, to offer roles that depict minorities to minorities of that race. The fact of the matter is that these parts come up so rarely that simply giving them to the first high profile [and undoubtedly popular] actor seems like a wasted opportunity [albeit a safer bet from a financial standpoint].

      How characters are then depicted is a different matter. There’s a pretty huge difference between one’s appearance and the accents people speak with. The fact that, going by your comment, all the White actors have modern American accents and all the non-White don’t is a pretty serious issue in and of itself that I won’t go into right now.

      I’m not really sure how my writing is adding “weight to the oppression of minorities.” I’ve taken Depp’s words about taking the role and found them to be severely lacking, and added to them what actual Native Americans have to say about his being Tonto. From my standpoint giving minorities role models who share their race is nothing but empowering, but that’s just my opinion.

  7. Whilst I agree that positive role models are needed, I feel it is patronising that anyone should feel the need to give me, or anyone for that matter, a role model of any kind.
    We chose our role models (both good and bad) from those who are presented to us from various walks of life, some even from the big screen. The guy you quoted, it appears, has had many powerful role models in his life from which he could have drawn great strength. Unless you have misrepresented him with your quotes, however, it appears that he has been unable to do so. I am sorry for that both for him as a person and the way it has seemed to detract from the point of your argument.

    • I don’t think I’ve misrepresented him with my quotes, seeing as I’ve presented them as is and without alteration. I also don’t see how it could be interpreted as being that he doesn’t look up to people like his uncles and grandfather. He very much does.

      Take the last sentence of my last comment and replace “giving” with “providing.” They’re synonyms, but the latter better communicates what I was trying to say.

      Creators of media, whether or not they’re aware of it, have a hand in influencing others through their work whether it be a book or a TV show or a film. The mission to present role models may not ever be on their minds, but as long as the characters they’re depicting are upright and moral and just there will always be the opportunity for young people to look up to them.

      It should never be “Let’s give these poor disenfranchised minorities a hero that they should look up to,” but instead, “Let’s create a hero that minorities can look up to.”

  8. I don’t deny that he looks up to his grandfather and others but, from the quotes you have given, he appears to have not let their influence affect his life in a positive manner. He appears embittered and in the past. Again, I may be doing the guy a miss-service as his quotes may be out of the context of their original intent. Such are the limits of the interweb!

  9. Oh, and just to add, positive role models do not necessarily have to be from the same ‘nation’ a certain Greek, born in Palestine who became a member of the Roman army inspired a nation of boys and young men to great things over hundreds of years. His name, St George – patron saint of England. A role model that would not have served for the Scottish, perhaps, just as a Huron role model may not serve well for the Yakima.
    So I guess generalisations generally don’t work!

  10. Why is it racist, when a white person acts as a native american? There are several movies, where black people act as some medieval knight and no body is saying, that this is racist. I think your post is racist – you want not allow Johnny Depp play as a native, because he isn’t one. World is full of racism, but if a black guy can play a white guy, than white guy should be abel to play a native american. Get over it and understand, that today it doesn’t matter, who plays who and if you think, that race is a limiting factor on choosing actors, than I think, that you have a problem.

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