Johnny Depp ‘s Tonto might not be a joke
Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger has been something of a cursed movie. Pre-production budget wrangling turned into on location over-spending, an already long shoot fell behind schedule, and, tragically, a member of the crew died in an accident on set. It just doesn’t get worse than that. But with at least $250 million in the tank, Verbinski & Co. have to keep plugging away and get through it and deliver. Yesterday the teaser trailer was released, and looking at the really high production value and slick editing, you wouldn’t know anything was wrong with this project behind the scenes.
It’s a teaser, so there’s not much by way of plot reveals, except that trains are a big deal. Tom Wilkinson’s voiceover emphasizes the importance of trains to the expansion in the west as the editing cuts through a train robbery/hijacking sequence. The tone is surprisingly dark, a lot darker than Pirates of the Caribbean, with both Johnny Depp’s Tonto and Armie Hammer’s Ranger being unsmiling, serious looking dudes bent on violence and destruction. There’s some gorgeous cinematography on display, and while I know the Pirates movies got bloated and self-indulgent, Verbinski really does have an eye for grandeur and scale. There’s even a call-back to There Will Be Blood (if you can spot it, you will get electrical applause).
But the main topic of conversation is, of course, Depp’s Tonto. Hammer looks good as the Ranger, and though he made his name as the WASP-y Winklevi in The Social Network, he’s believable as a gunslinger. But let’s not pretend like anyone really cares about Hammer when Depp is taking on a role so loaded with racist history at a time when his public good will is at an all-time low. It’s a recipe for disaster. I’ve already expressed hope that Depp can successfully recreate Tonto as less of a racist cartoon and more of an actual character of dignity, and the trailer is encouraging in that regard. Yes, he’s speaking in that stereotypical pidgin “Injun” voice, but he’s also right in there getting sh*t done during the train robbery. I asked a couple of my native friends what they thought and one said, “Tonto’s kind of a badass.” I think I can take the article-less dialect if Tonto is a character with agency and not just a caricature.
There are a lot of native eyes on The Lone Ranger. I told Lainey the other day the sense I’ve gotten from my friends and acquaintances is a palpably painful hope that Tonto will be a representative we can be proud of and not an ugly joke we have to continue to tolerate. Of course there are those against this from the outset—Tonto’s legacy is so damaging and distasteful that there are many who would prefer he just stay dead and buried, and there are those against Depp, who is of uncertain native heritage, playing the role—but this is happening regardless, and a lot of people take the attitude of “just please get it right”. To that end, the production has been very open to native scholars and tribal representatives coming to visit the set and give their input. Depp has been visiting different reservations and has been embraced by several southwestern tribes, including the Comanche and Navajo. It seems that they’re legitimately trying to do this the right way.
As for the bird hat—yeah, it looks weird. But they’ve clearly made a choice to associate Tonto with certain things in native culture, and given the bird on the poster and the bit with the vultures in the trailer, they’re really pulling from the bird totems for the visual language of the film. Crows represent justice and partnership, which is a direct call back to Tonto and the Ranger’s relationship. The vultures appear as Tonto is dragging the Ranger away from the ambush that killed his brother and nearly killed him, too. Vultures are very powerful totems of rebirth and purification, especially in sun rituals. They’re associated with the dawn of a new day. Tonto saves John Reid and helps him become the Lone Ranger, figuratively being reborn in his new, masked identity. That’s pure vulture medicine.
The “KISS-inspired” comments though…
No one made fun of Mel Gibson painting his face blue in Braveheart because that’s how the Scots actually went into battle. Yet it’s totally okay to lampoon Depp’s Tonto because...because native culture is the one culture no one thinks twice about deriding. It’s so common most people don’t even realize they’re doing it. I’m sure that every person who’s written about this trailer and made jokes at the expense of the bird hat and the makeup didn’t think they were being in any way demeaning. But would those same people say the same if it were an actor portraying a Zulu warrior? Or a Mayan? Or a Samurai?
The Lone Ranger is going to get a huge push next year and is already positioned as one of the biggest movies of 2013, in expenditures if nothing else. But all of that, everything else, will be overshadowed by Depp and Tonto. We’ll be having this conversation a lot for the next year.