World Premier of "The Lone Ranger" Raises New Questions About Old Stereotypes

Jun 24, 2013

Johnny Depp plays Tonto in Disney's "The Lone Ranger."
Credit Disney

Celebrities, Native American emissaries, and throngs of fans headed to California this weekend for the world premier of The Lone Ranger.  Johnny Depp stars as Tonto, the Native American sidekick, and his portrayal - complete with broken English - has stirred controversy in Indian Country.

First appearing in the 1930's, Tonto has generally been viewed as a stereotype of Native Americans. The original film described him as a "faithful Indian companion," the "masked rider of the plains" who led the fight for law and order in the early western United States.

Today, Disney has attempted to re-imagine the role, this time casting actor Johnny Depp as Tonto. His pigeon English in the film has some worried. Critics have called the portrayal "redface," but others say this version of Tonto will be different.

Justin Haythe wrote the script for the film. "The point to remaking this storywas to do it in a way that couldn't have been done in the 30's and the 50's," he says.  "Tonto in the original character was really relegated to a side character and in this, he is the character in many ways."

Images and previews have shown Depp wearing face paint with a raven mounted on the top of his head, a look reportedly inspired from a fantasy painting by a non-native artist. A replica of the crow-mounted headpiece is now available to purchase through Disney stores and a Comanche cultural advisor for the film, known only by his first name Troy, says the look is culturally correct. "The raven on his head comes from the crow tassel wares," he explained. "They're a set of elite warriors for the Comanches."

In the film, Tonto is said to be a Comanche tribal member and speaks the language. Depp was even adopted by the Comanche Nation recently. Troy says he helped conduct the ceremony. "In the comanche way, we always took captives. That's always gone on for hundreds of hundreds of years." Troy says the Comanche Nation has literally taken Johnny Depp captive.

As for how Native Americans will feel about the film,  Depp passed up an opportunity to talk about it. Armie Hammer, who plays the role of the Lone Ranger, did have something to say. "This is  a great example of where you actually see the struggle of the Native American and sort of the mass genocide and exploitation that happened under the guise of progress," he says. "And this is one of those movies that doesn't show it in a glorified light, you feel for it."

Theater goers at Disneyland were there to see the movie for $1000 dollars a seat. All proceeds go to the American Indian College Fund - an estimated $300,000 in ticket sales plus matching contributions from Disney for Native American students.

As for final judgment on the film? Audiences will have to wait until July 4th to see Tonto on the silver screen.

Here's a clip from the original show.