Johnny Depp has been a heartthrob for decades, first rising to fame and capturing the hearts of teens everywhere with his role in 21 Jump Street. Since then, he has proved that he is more than just devilish good looks, and has demanded respect for his acting by playing the lead in Edward Scissorhands, Sweeney Todd, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and The Pirates of the Caribbean. Depp has pulled off many personas and roles in addition to the ones listed above, transforming himself into a vampire, an eccentric candy man, and a delusional mad hatter. Depp’s most recent role as America’s Native American hero has actually garnered him some negative feedback.
The Lone Ranger is a popular American franchise, starting as a radio show in 1933 and evolving into a television series running between 1949 and 1957. Considering America’s past with racism and treatment of minorities, especially the treatment of Native Americans, and combined with the fact that the Lone Ranger was popular long before the advent of the civil rights movements in the ’60s, it is understandable, but not forgivable, that the Native American character, Tonto, was never represented well. According to Salon, as The Lone Ranger franchise developed, Tonto was first portrayed as a bloodthirsty savage, then as a slightly competent character in accordance with the Reorganization Act, and finally as a character independent from a tribe, and loyal to the Lone Ranger. His characterization has always been to affirm a stereotype or “prove” that their various laws regarding Native Americans were working; in other words, whatever the American nation has needed.
In the present age, a day where racism has supposedly been abolished and the American government has apologized to Native Americans for past treatment, what new direction can Tonto‘s character take? According to Adrienne Keene, a Harvard graduate, Depp’s Tonto is comprised of all the stereotypes typical of Hollywood, and he totally misrepresented the already underrepresented Native American culture. His costume was based on a painting by Kirby Sattler, a non-Native who has admitted that he does not paint his subjects with historical or ethnical accuracy in mind.
Depp has conferred with Native groups, donated money to Native charities, and has been adopted as an honorary member by the Comanche Nation. Depp’s main goal was to create a role model for Native Americans to look up to. According to Keene, that would have been more successful if he had played Tonto as a character that did not use being Native American as the main selling point. While it is true that Depp has used his fame and money from the role to help Native Americans, and the resurfacing of the role has brought these social issues to light, critics have said that it would be better if an actual Native American played the role, instead of Depp.
Though the role of Tonto in this revival of The Lone Ranger is not overtly racist like it was in the past, there are still plenty issues inherent within the character. It is a bit of a dual edge sword; Depp is helping bring awareness to the otherwise ignored Native American culture, but is also engaging in common stereotypes that actually hurt the advances of Native American rights movements. It isn’t a perfect step or a completely politically correct role, but it does have certain positive benefits in the rehashing of the popular Western.
WORDS: Donna. Prior to working as a social manager at Edictive in Sydney, Australia She worked as a talent agent in Los Angeles, USA