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. 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:
- There are very few roles for non-White characters in Hollywood.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Nathanael Bassett — May 7, 2012
What's worse is Depp should know better - he was in Dead Man with Gary Farmer, which was far more fair to accuracy and conscientious towards Native American representations.
Yrro Simyarin — May 7, 2012
Cowboys didn't look much like the Lone Ranger, either. The entirety of the Western genre is a cultural myth. Just like how ninjas didn't wear black, scotsmen generally preferred pikes to claymores, and knights rarely if ever fought dragons. This is the last movie from which to expect anything approaching historical realism.
It's not the portrayal, it's the power relationship. With the power relationship as imbalanced as it is, there is no good way to portray Native Americans as one of the many stock characters in a Western piece. Even if done accurately, you risk claims of appropriation. Casting a Native American would only help *because* of the injustice that they are not considered valid for standard "white" roles. I don't expect a Cherokee actor to have an inherent advantage in playing a fantasy Tonto any more than I expect an Chinese-American actor to know kung fu...
Because we can't fix the disease, we gripe about the symptoms.
Ariel — May 7, 2012
Question: do we know that Depp designed the costume? I don't know that he didn't, but it seems unusual to have an actor doing costume direction.
Alex Odell — May 7, 2012
The sad thing is, even if a legitimate Native American actor was cast, it would still probably come off stereotyped and racist as hell. It's not like actors can choose what to say or their character's roles in movies. And trying to make a less racist version of Tonto is like trying to make a less offensive version of blackface. Can't be done.
paul — May 7, 2012
Can anyone name me a movie with Native American characters (even a modern-day character) that haven't been stereotyped or culturally appropriated? The only one I've seen that even comes close is Smoke Signals.
Stephen Hagan — May 7, 2012
Everyone should watch the very good documentary "Reel Injuns." Done by a Native American about Native American's in film. One of more interesting aspects is that Iron Eyes Cody really viewed himself as a Native American and his children (with his Native American wife) still view him as such. Often times there are layers and layers.
Captain Pasty — May 7, 2012
Actually, the kid who plays Aang in the Last Airbender film is Native American:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noah_Ringer
Which still doesn't make much sense because the Airbenders are Tibetan. Although the actors who played Sokka and Katara were white, and they're meant to be Water Tribe (Inuit) and the Fire Nation were Indian in the film, but are meant to be Japanese.
Anna — May 7, 2012
"I guess I have some Native American (in me) somewhere down the line. My great grandmother was quite a bit of Native American, she grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian. Makes sense in terms of coming from Kentucky, which is rife with Cherokee and Creek."
Depp does not use the word "Indian", so why is it used in the text to mock his (lack of) knowledge about his background? It is understandable if someone doesn't quite know what tribe their great grandmother belonged to, seeing as people often hid or strayed away from their Native American ancestry out of (inflicted) shame or fear.
Moreover, during his great grandmother's time, isn't it plausible that she herself may have not know exactly whether she was Cherokee or Creek, if she was from a region where there were a lot of both, and who were presumably treated as the "same thing" by the white hegemony? Also, weren't many traditions lost for lack of cultural freedom? Heck, I can't even be sure what ethnicity two of my grandparents were, much less great-grandparents - this is how it often goes in volatile cultural landscapes.
Finally, if Depp has Native American ancestry, why do we assume he identifies as white, or even that everyone else sees him as white? Without knowing much about his background, I always assumed he was of mixed ethnicity and/or race.
Blanca Caldas — May 7, 2012
interestingly, in spanish that characted is called "toro" (bull) not tonto
John B — May 8, 2012
For some reason this reminds me of the scenes between Ken Hotate and Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation.
FLGuest — May 17, 2012
I haven't got much to add to the convo, but if "Tonto" translates to "stupid" in Spanish, "Depp" translates to the same thing in German. http://www.dict.cc/german-english/Depp.html
Tonto's Portrayal - Media Watch | Media Watch — July 12, 2013
[...] DEPP’S “TONTO” COSTUME BASED ON A NON-NATIVE ARTIST’S WILD IMAGINATION by Lisa Wade, PhD, From Sociological Images 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. [...]
Stephanie — July 13, 2013
I read a rumor that said Depp's character was revealed at the end of the movie to just be a white guy all along, appropriating Native dress, culture, etc., as a way of hiding from the law. Can anyone say if that's true?
And if it is, does that make this whole thing better or worse? I honestly have no idea.
Lauri Lee — July 13, 2013
For something that actually is Native American.
This poem and commentary covers a lot mileage about this whole Johnny Depp issue and is quite insightful.
The new/old Tonto « Worlding — July 13, 2013
[...] Story at: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2013/07/12/depps-tonto-costume-based-on-a-non-native-artists-wi... [...]
TBrown — July 13, 2013
I want to place the Jezebel article here because I thought this would be included: http://jezebel.com/native-american-lone-ranger-designer-isnt-actually-n-711159001 The designer who *claimed* to be Indian is totally not. Just to add to the steaming pile of racial problems.
Utnapishtam — July 17, 2013
This is one of the stupidest articles I have ever read. There are very few roles for non white actors in Hollywood? Angela BassetDanny Glover
Vivica A. Fox
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs
Jada Pinkett Smith
Vanessa Williams(Soul Food on HBO)
Holly Robinson Peete
LL Cool J
Cuba Gooding Jr
Wendy Raquel Robinson
Terri J. Vaughn
Keenan Ivory Wayans
J August Richards
Utnapishtam — July 17, 2013
There you have it again indeed. A hack job by a pious windbag.
Fisking Feminist — July 18, 2013
Depp's own words show he didn't achieve what he set out to. http://fiskingfeminist.wordpress.com/2013/07/11/52/
Utnapishtam — July 22, 2013
Finally, hard sociological analysis from the University of Sesame Street.
Aer O'Head — August 4, 2013
Check out the fellow third from left in this picture (taken in Billings, Montana in 1933): https://fbcdn-sphotos-e-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-ash4/p480x480/419281_510304849022156_593055953_n.jpg