The Lone Ranger (2013)
There was a pretty good article in Time magazine about whether The Lone Ranger was racist.
Comanche Chairman Wallace Coffey doesn't think so.
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.
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.
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."
When Tonto and John Reid first meet, John Reid is a goofy, non-gun carrying district attorney. His brother Dan is a Texas Ranger, but John is just a city boy. The set out to track down an escaped killer, but Dan and the other Rangers are all killed, but John somehow survives.
Tonto is used in the movie as comic relief, but it is mostly as the expense of John Reid. Tonto is a funny character and he spends a lot of the movie making faces at the mistakes of John Reid.
The movie opens with the railroad is ready to connect the county. A spokesman says at the groundbreaking: "To the Comanche I say you have nothing to fear. Long as there is peace between us all the land territories will be honored." Once the railroad gets in a position with more power the spokesman says: "Let the the Comanche make no mistake. We will not be dissuaded from out task. From here on, all treaties with the Indian Nation are null and void."
The Comanches capture Tonto and the Lone Ranger and are preparing for war. The Lone Ranger talks to the Comanches in broken English and signs and they think he is feeble and drunk. The Comanches tell him the story of Tonto. Tonto as a boy had showed some whites where the silver on their land was. They returned and massacred his village. Tonto was "broken" after that.
The Comanches want to know why the promises were not kept to them. John Reid's brother Dan had promised them peace, but the promises were not kept. A Custer like character then attacks the village and slaughter the women and children. The railroad is progress and the Indians stand in the way of that progress. The Indians attack and a Gatling gun shoots them down.
The movie was made as entertainment, and it tried to present a positive portrayal of the Indians. I think Johnny Depp's Tonto was supposed to represent the wise character when compared to the rather slow witted Lone Ranger. It was nice to see Tonto switched to the main character, and have the Lone Ranger be the slow witted side kick.
Overall, I thought the movie was pretty good. I really liked the homages to the old Western movies like The Searchers. I also thought the movie presented a nice look at how the Indians were treated by America. When they first arrived the emphasis was on everyone getting along, but once the whites were in a position of power all the promises were forgotten.