Redefining Tonto & Depp with Paradis

March 9, 2012 15:33:17 Posted at March 9, 2012 15:33:17
Sarah Posted by Sarah

Yesterday the first image from Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger was released, featuring Armie Hammer as the Ranger and Johnny Depp as Tonto. I texted Lainey that I was into it and she responded that she was over Depp and his overly elaborate costumes and makeup, and that she thought the photo communicated a lot of Try. And look, I get that. I’m as big a Depp fan as you’ll find—I fully own being a Depp apologist—and even I’m worn down on the unrelenting eccentricity.

But…it’s Tonto. If ever there was a time for Depp to apply his commitment to extreme costuming, it’s now, in the name of redefining one of the worst, most offensive portrayals of American Indians in all of pop culture. I’m of Lakota descent and I try really hard not get bent out of shape about the hundred casual insults that I swallow every day because I don’t want to be an angry person, but I hear the word Tonto and I cannot help the shudder that crawls down my spine. We’ve only got two Natives in pop culture that everyone knows: 1) Pocahontas, who probably didn’t do all that stuff John Smith said she did, and 2) Tonto, who is a racist cartoon.

It’s been Depp’s dream for a long time to bring The Lone Ranger to the big screen and he’s always talked about redefining Tonto as his principal interest. Based off this first look, I like where he’s going with it. Hammer looks good as the Ranger, sure, but I was immediately down with Depp’s Shamanic Tonto. According to the original Lone Ranger, Tonto was Potawatomi, but based on Depp’s appearance, it looks like they’re making Tonto Apache, which fits the movie’s southwest setting (the Tonto Apache hale from Arizona). It’s not 100% accurate—the breast plate he’s wearing is a Plains thing while everything else is southwestern—but it’s a much, much more realistic take on what Tonto would’ve looked like.

I’m less down with some of the commentary going on in the wake of the photo’s release. The comparisons to black face are especially irksome. We can discuss whether or not Depp, who is unsure of his exact native heritage, is an appropriate choice to play the role over a Native actor, but the face paint is not the same as black face. Black face was used by white entertainers mocking black stereotypes, but even if a full-blooded enrolled Apache was playing Tonto, he’d be wearing the same makeup. Because that’s how Apache fighters painted their faces. And that’s the difference here—take Depp out and put, say, Adam Beach in, and Tonto would still be wearing the same costume.

Also not welcome are derogatory comments about the crow on his head. Spirit animals and totems are important throughout Native cultures and I’m superstitious and take that sh*t seriously. You have the zodiac, I have my spirit animal. The crow is most often a symbol of justice and partnership. It’s fitting then, yes? Comments about how “freakish” it is and references to Brandon Lee and/or The Crow undermine that there is an actual visual language being referenced, one that has ties to religious beliefs. I’m not asking you to like it, just respect it. And that’s probably the heart of the issue here. Tonto has never been a figure that commands respect, and now that Depp, a man who has exhausted his goodwill with many people, is trying to infuse some dignity into the character, it’s creating a mix of eye-rolling and cultural insensitivity. I know Depp can be tiring, but for once he’s putting his love of detailed costumes into something worthwhile—removing Tonto from the punchline and making him a proper character.
Is Depp’s commitment to character Tonto’s saving grace, or is he dooming Tonto to new depths of absurdity?

(Lainey: Wednesday night, late, I’m told by multiple sources that Depp and Vanessa Paradis were seen checking in together at a local hotel in Toronto after arriving on a private plane just after midnight. No idea the purpose of the trip although it’s been suggested she may have been taking a meeting with a French Canadian filmmaker. Johnny’s movements are always super stealth. Hopefully an encouraging sign that they’re trying to make it work.)

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