A white man as Tonto—is that kosher? - Macleans.ca

A white man as Tonto—is that kosher?

Johnny Depp gives a Hollywood Indian icon a rethink, and may just get away with it

A white man as Tonto—is that kosher?

Peter Mountain/Disney

There is no more iconic stereotype of the Hollywood Indian than Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s faithful sidekick. But at a time when Native Americans were typically portrayed by Mexicans, Tonto was at least played by an Aboriginal actor, Canadian Mohawk Jay Silverheels, who once spoofed his role in a sketch on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show: “My name is Tonto. I hail from Toronto, and I speak Esperanto.” Now it’s almost obligatory for Native actors to play Native roles, and that’s been the case at least since Graham Greene’s Oscar-nominated turn in Dances With Wolves (1990). But six decades after Silverheels was routinely upstaged by a white steed named Silver, Johnny Depp has given Tonto a nervy makeover that could ruffle some feathers.

In the blockbuster reboot of The Lone Ranger, opening July 3, he’s a white actor playing a red man in whiteface with a dead crow on his head. But Depp claims he’s gone native in the name of Native empowerment. Reversing the old roles, the movie makes Tonto a puckish hero and the Lone Ranger (Arme Hammer) his starchy straight man. Saying he wanted “to set the record straight,” Depp told Entertainment Weekly: “Tonto is nobody’s sidekick. Tonto is a proud warrior.’’

Rehabilitating a Hollywood stereotype by reverting to non-Native casting brings to mind that western cliché “white man speak with forked tongue.” But if anyone can get away with the piracy of race appropriation, it’s Johnny Depp. Unique among his peers, the shape-shifting trickster may be the only A-list action hero who routinely refuses to play himself, and instead treats acting as a kind of pantomime ritual. John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Robert Downey Jr.—every one of them became a Hollywood brand with a screen persona that’s instantly familiar, and doesn’t change much from one movie to the next. But Depp is a perpetual impersonator. No stranger to whiteface, as Tonto he re-engineers the noble savage as a slapstick sage.

He approaches performance almost more as a rock star than as an actor, with an outlaw style that seems to have rubbed off from his pal Keith Richards—whose shambolic mannerisms he shamelessly plundered to create Capt. Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. On the other hand, the ancient mariner of the Rolling Stones has cultivated a consistent image. Depp, 50, has behaved more like David Bowie or Bob Dylan, a chameleon who morphs from one freaky anti-hero to another: from the pasty punk of Edward Scissorhands to the Mad Hatter of Alice in Wonderland. And when Depp gets real, he’s drawn to stories of outlaws and renegades, like gangster John Dillinger in Public Enemies and an overly embedded undercover cop in Donnie Brasco.

Even Depp’s path to superstardom was oblique. After his breakout as a teen heartthrob in TV’s 21 Jump Street, he spent years resisting fame in the indie wilderness. And when he created a dissolute pirate with dreads and guyliner, Disney executives were mortified. Now, sitting on the bottomless treasure chest of Pirates of Caribbean, Depp is poised to launch another franchise. With Pirates veteran Gore Verbinski directing The Lone Ranger, Tonto looks like a kabuki Jack Sparrow of the Wild West. He’s a Comanche warrior gone rogue, and Depp, who claims to have a touch of Native blood, immersed himself in Comanche culture for the role.

But his Tonto may be no more a real Indian than his Mad Hatter is a real hatter. He’s a Hollywood Indian reimagined as a shaman/fool by an actor who preserves Tonto’s original syntax, which consists of speaking without articles. Depp has been searching for his inner native since Dead Man (1995), the psychedelic western Depp made with director Jim Jarmusch and Canadian Native actor Gary Farmer. Tonto’s face paint is copied from I Am Crow, a painting of an imaginary 19th-century Plains Indian by contemporary non-Native artist Kirby Sattler, who says it has no historical authenticity. But it looks cool. In The Lone Ranger, Tonto declares: “There come a time, kemosabe, when good man must wear mask.” Depp could just as easily be talking about himself.


A white man as Tonto—is that kosher?

  1. Brian D. Johnson actually has no argument as to why it is alright for Johnny Depp to imitate a native person in this movie; other than he thinks Depp is cooler than other actors so it must be ok. Also, Johnson seems to have never read or seen anything relating to the history of white people dressing as natives, or blackface. This is a pity, because it would have been interesting to see a real, thoughtful defense of this movie (if that’s possible).

    If anyone happens to be interested, though, take note that this is yet another Disney production and Disney has a particularly checkered history when it comes to the portrayal of racial stereotypes. I’m not talking about in the 1950s, either. The bad and hurtful stereotypes in Disney films continue, despite continuous criticism, even in the present time. This latest Lone Ranger movie may well be considered as racist and awful in the future as Song of the South is now. One can only hope the the public will one day hold studios like Disney to a higher standard.

  2. Meh… I’m sure it was Depp’s idea, as the goose that keeps laying golden eggs I’m positive Disney would have let him play Silver if that’s what got him in the movie… at which point we would ask why… oh why!!? didn’t they cast an actual horse to play the part of the horse, just like in the original!!?
    Disney is not in the business of cultural sensitivity and education, but entertaining and making $$$… which Depp brings in spades.
    I’d be surprised if native peoples actually looked at Tonto as some sort of sacred cultural icon… who really cares what colour actor (or CGI construct for that matter) plays him?

  3. Depp believes he has Cherokee or Creek ancestors.

  4. He wears facepaint but nothing stereotypically offensive or racist. And we have ‘mericans, brits and canucks playing from Romans to French to Aussies and nobody cared really if their accents is not spot on. It’s a performance and a fairy tale, not a documentary or historically correct drama. Should Natives start crying over this?

  5. Depp was formally adopted by the Comanches, and given a new name. It means ‘shape-shifter’

    Which is more than I can say about Tim Russ playing Tuvok

  6. Johnny Depp’s is half Seminole, so I think it is kosher for one of the leading actors of our time to give it a spin. Mr. Johnson, did you do any research on JD in the past 20 years?

  7. This is not a documentary nor a biography. Tonto and the Lone Ranger are comic book characters. Would it be okay for a Native actor to play Superman? Absolutely.

  8. I live in Saskatchewan Canada with a lot of Aboriginal people. Depp believing he has Native ancestry is really not hard to see. He has many features of the Aboriginal peoples.
    Since it is believed that the aboriginals are of Asian and Celtic decent coming over on the ice sheild and depp being of Celtic (Irish) ancestry, it all works in the end lol

  9. I am of Canadian First Nation ancestry – both parents were 1/2 native. What I have to say is that First Nations celebrate adoption. Johnny was adopted by the Comanches, that’s good enough for me. Furthermore, I welcome anyone of any blood heritage who chooses to be or thinks themselves to be part or wholly native, into the fold. I am not the only Native who will claim you if that’s what you want.. Also, many Nations’ rites and regalia have been mingled to create our modern Native culture. So if you are or believe you are Native, or if you have even 1 ancestor who was Native and if you are not ridiculing our culture, but you have an understanding of it and are honoring it, then I say that you are not expropriating it, you are embracing it. I am more than OK with that.
    So go Johnny go.

  10. OOPS I should have said North American First Nations ancestry – since my ancestors’ Nations originated in North & South Eastern US

  11. Kosher? Of course it’s Kosher. What nonsense!

    Does one have to be a Jew to play a Jewish role? In Dr. Zhivago Omar Sharif an Egyptian played a Russian with great results and speaking of Graham Greene a Native has played a ton of roles which had nothing to do with his native background.
    My goodness in times past men played female roles to good effect.
    Brian Johnson must be having a very slow week to even breach this subject–if an actor can play role then play the role–it’s nonsense to try to inject some other goofy conspiracy theory into a good straight up idea. Depp is a great actor; why wouldn’t you have him play Tonto if he can play the role.

  12. It’s just a movie. Take a pill, PC whiners.

  13. I’ve dealt with this issue over the last 16 months writing my new book and knowing of the upcoming movie. I separate the old ‘Tonto’ character from the new and also historic accuracy and in fact whether he has Native blood or not. Jay Silverheels ‘clearly’ would have preferred a Native playing the role, however, if Depp ‘has’ some First Nations blood then I believe he qualifies. Over the many centuries intermarriage has diluted % of blood of any nation. Bottom line the ‘new’ Tonto ranks much better in terms of equity in his role compared to the old.

    TONTO: The Man in Front of the Mask, first biography of Jay Silverheels ever written. Hard cover, 129 pg fully illustrated with original photos, drawings and maps. Interviews with relatives from the Grand River Six Nations Territory. http://www.realpeopleshistory.com

  14. It is easy to say that this is just a movie and that it doesn’t make a difference but at the heart of it, it really does make a difference. When you are the recipient and perpetrator of white privilege, you can easily go about acting like anyone who speaks out about this is whining and being oh so PC. The problem here is that when there are so few roles for Native Americans and when obviously there are so few willing to hire Native Americans to play the parts we need to pay attention and we should do our best to create a fair and inclusive playing field that embraces rather than ignores people of other races.
    As for the comment about having a Native person playing superman, sorry, but not the same deal. The issue here is that the vast majority of our movies are populated with white card board cutouts. This is a diverse world and our movies, the characters within them, and the actors who play those characters should be reflective of that.
    Johnnie Depp is a fine actor, but it would have be nice to see Tonto played by a Native person. Personally I won’t be seeing the movie.