Johnny Depp is playing the character of “Tonto” in the movie re-make of The Lone Ranger.  Critics of the original series have observed that Tonto, the American Indian sidekick of the White hero, was a negative racial stereotype.  He was subservient to the Ranger, spoke poor English, and seemed generally dumb (his name translates into “stupid” in Spanish).  Depp has insisted that he wants to play a different kind of Tonto and reinvent the characters’ relationship.

So far so bad, as least according to recently released publicity photos revealing Depp’s costume and make up (coverage suggests that Depp himself is designing the character’s appearance).  Thanks to YetAnotherGirl and Dolores R. for sending in the tip.

Depp’s look was inspired by the art of a man named Kirby Sattler.  That’s Depp on the left; Sattler’s painting is on the right.

Sattler is famous for painting images of Native Americans, but has been criticized for stereotypical representations.  “Indian art” is a contentious issue: many non-Indian artists have made careers painting the “noble savage” and the “young girl with wolf.”  According to Native Appropriations, Sattler “…relies heavily on stereotypes of Native people as mystical-connected-to-nature-ancient-spiritual-creatures, with little regard for any type of historical accuracy.”  Sattler himself has written that his paintings come out of his own imagination or, as Native Appropriations puts it, “he makes these subjects up based on the (heavily stereotyped) images in his own head.”  Here’s a Google image search for the artist’s name:

This, unfortunately, is playing out an all-too-common story.  It goes like this:

  1. There are very few roles for non-White characters in Hollywood.
  2. When we have a non-White character, a White actor is cast into the role (e.g., The Last Airbender and Iron Eyes Cody, the crying Indian).
  3. That actor shows a lack of understanding of the real issues at hand. Depp, for example, has claimed a right to play the role because he has a little bit of Indian in him.  “Cherokee or maybe Creek,” he says, because he doesn’t actually know.
  4. So, the portrayal is consistent with harmful stereotypes.  In this case, when deciding on a costume, Depp doesn’t choose to represent a tribe as they really were (“are” is out of the question), but instead draws on the work of an artist who admits that he makes up an idea of “the Indian” that appeals to him, a White man with no interest in true-to-life portrayals.

So, there you have it.  Again.

This post originally appeared in May 2012.  For more, see Representations of the “Primitive” Indian and Anachronism and American Indians.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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