courtesy Disney

The Real Problem With a Lone Ranger Movie? It's the Racism, Stupid


The hysteria over Johnny Depp as Tonto is (probably) in its denoument: The Lone Ranger opened to terrible reviews and disappointing box office numbers, and American Indians who didn't like the idea of Depp as a Native icon were to some extent vindicated. There will be some pieces to pick up and some lessons learned, but a lot of questions have been answered.

Here's one that is still up for debate: Was the Lone Ranger story simply too much of a relic from less enlightened times? Was the whole shooting match, as Jason Bailey writes at Flavorwire, "too racist to reboot"?

Bailey notes that, despite Depp's lip service to a Tonto who would break with tradition, the character as played still "maintains the most culturally damaging element of the role, his definite article-free dialogue, with lines like, 'Do not touch rock. Rock cursed.'" Bailey describes the plotline of The Lone Ranger as a narrative that has been "twisted ... into pretzels" to try not to be racist -- and yet still is. The entire concept of the Lone Ranger and Tonto -- a team up that was historically unlikely, to put it mildly -- might just be unredeemable. Bailey brings up Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice, which was made into a major film as recently as 2004, and says "maybe we just don’t need to tell this story anymore, since it — though a classic, and an important piece of literature, etc. etc. — is deeply, unavoidably, problematically anti-Semitic."

In a long interview posted to the Moviefone Canada site, Jesse Wente of the Toronto International Film Festival grants that those involved with the film may very well have intended to empower Tonto, but ended up with a character that is less progressive than the Native sidekicks played by Chief Dan George in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Gary Farmer in Dead Man (1995). And ultimately, Wente said, there is just a problem with the traditional Western. "Because of the nature of the Western, its ties to the idea of nationhood, particularly in the U.S.," he said. "These stories were, with Manifest Destiny, fundamental nation building [myths] for the U.S. If you think about the classic era of the Western, from the early '30s to the '50s, it came when the States was still a very young country and still needed to tell itself the story of its own origins, and this was the story it told. Unfortunately, it was told at the expense of the first inhabitants of this land because it altered the history, the truth of what happened. To me this film recalls a lot of those issues."

An article at suggested that "the issue isn’t so much the casting as it is the character." Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations pointed out that Tonto is, unfortunately, one of just a few Native people -- real or fictional -- that non-Indians know of. The risk is that his quirks or character traits may be applied to an entire race: "Without an accurate pop-culture idea of a real-life Native American in moviegoers’ heads, Tonto is less of an individual character than he is a key piece of the popular image of a large and diverse population. The stereotype is particularly detrimental for its fantastical elements, [Keene] believes: when a real group of people seems as mystical as say, werewolves, in every pop-culture depiction of the group, it gets hard to pay any attention to the real people who are alive today and have real issues and achievements of their own."

In a piece for Slate entitled "Johnny Depp’s Tonto: Not as Racist as You Might Think. But Still Kind of Racist," Aisha Harris was more forgiving than others, but still couldn't get past the limitations of the source material. "Depp’s attempt to be a 'warrior' role model to all the American Indian kids lucky enough to watch him save the day fails—and for the simple reason that the original material is too entrenched in an essentially racist ideology."

It appears that, despite the filmmakers' intentions, The Lone Ranger did not reinvent Tonto or the Tonto-Ranger dynamic -- and perhaps it's because America has simply moved on. Is there any reinventing of Unce Remus from Song of the South, or Chop Chop from the old Blackhawk comic books? Arguably not. While a Native actor such as Adam Beach (often mentioned as a better fit for Tonto) might have been a more pleasing casting choice, in this case Depp's insistence on playing Tonto actually saved a Native actor the awkwardness of trying to sell viewers a story they were never going to buy. 

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Theresa G Loutit
Theresa G Loutit
Submitted by Theresa G Loutit on
Everyone should remember that its Fictional not based on Real Life.The comment - "It's the Racism, Stupid", it's also Fictional, Stupid.

rauker's picture
Submitted by rauker on
I really like this coverage of the whole Tonto thing, (and this will probably be the last thing I really have to say about it), because it identifies what feels to me like the key concept that makes the whole thing problematic and more than "just a movie" or "just entertainment". And that is that stories and myths are important. They are not just how we fuel our imaginations, or how we keep ourselves from boredom. They are the visions from which we build nations, communities, and ultimately from which we build our world. People can be empowered and disenfranchised by stories, and we need to own that. It also means, that at some point, we need to question the usefulness of certain stories, and of certain kinds of stories. We need to be willing to identify when our stories really can hurt people, or even more subversively, when they influence our perception of the world so that we no longer notice or care that people are being hurt.

anuvanleeuwen's picture
Submitted by anuvanleeuwen on
I think JD did a good job, the discussion about Natives startes now on a other, more public way and watched by the rest of the world. The fact that so many people are upset, is a succes indeed. He is an actor and this is just a film remember? And, I have heard that he is planning or going to buy Wounded Knee to give back to Native peaple, againno good because Indians are crying out that this land is theirs and that they should get ik back for free, well they do don't they? From him, JD. So what ! What's going wrong there in the USA?

Socially-Considered's picture
Submitted by Socially-Considered on
I learned Spanish as my first language and as a child learning English, it puzzled me to hear the Lone Ranger's trusted friend referred to as "Tonto" which is Spanish for "Idiot". The actor's court battle to wear a mask in public was just plain bizarre. The whole Lone Ranger concept needs to be buried and forgotten. It is a part of Hollywood that served to stereotype inferior types of people who were even on the good side of the law....something unacceptable in today's society. The Lone Ranger made plenty of money in the Baby Boomer era, but also perpetuated a rash of social problems and ignorance about meso-american cultures. Today, we still can't get North Americans to accept that Creek Natives were actually Mayans.

Savage Lynx
Savage Lynx
Submitted by Savage Lynx on
It's more to the point that our government is racist to the point of continuing its genocidal tendencies by not providing aid to people within our country who sorely need help with basics like electricity and plumbing. Providing aid to other countries first. Pointing fingers at Johnny Depp or any film is part of a system that's askew. Our government is part of what's off center, and we can do better.

Downs's picture
Submitted by Downs on
The Tonto I grew up with I saw as a friend and partner to the Lone Ranger. I remember from the shows Tonto was needed to rescue or backup the Lone Ranger. That he was a Native character played by a Native during the 50's and 60's is rather subversive for the times. His English was sad. I guess having him speak regular English was one step to many. The Lone Ranger has been updated in comic books and if this current version had borrowed from them we might not have had this conversation. Johnny Depp did what he was hired to do, make a crazy quirky character. Just like Dark Shadows he did it with a pre-existing character that wasn't crazy and quirky. Therefore the basic problem with the movie. I agree there were some great Buster Keaton homages in the movie but why was Tonto a Buster Keaton homage?

TJ Scott
TJ Scott
Submitted by TJ Scott on
For those screaming it's Fictional, Lone Ranger was based off of the life of Bass Reeves. You may want to research it. Here is a link for starters.

Matthew Baugh
Matthew Baugh
Submitted by Matthew Baugh on
I think the problem is that it pushed in the wrong direction. They tried not to be racist but they did it by making all the white characters horrible people or (in the case of the Lone Ranger) comically incompetent. There are several problems with this. For one thing, by making white people cartoonish villains paradoxically lets us all off the hook. Modern white Americans will feel no connection to the wrongs committed by the villains in the movie. The other major issue is that there is no celebration of Tonto's culture. Whether he's Potawatomi (like the old radio show) or Comanche (like the Depp movie) his culture should be a part of his character. He should not be a generic Indian. The Depp Tonto is a Comanche (though his people go to war on foot rather than horseback), who believes in wendigos (evil creatures from the legends of the Algonquian peoples of the Great Lakes) and dresses like a modern painting by an artist who admits he doesn't know much about the different peoples, their dress and customs.) This Tonto is a mishmash of Native stereotypes. He makes no more sense than a Cossack, who wears wooden shoes, plays the bagpipes, speaks with an Italian accent, and always eats knockwurst would as a generic white character. I think the Lone Ranger and Tonto *could* work as a movie, if the characters were treated as human beings. If Tonto were a Comanche who had been raised in that culture, shared their values and spirituality, their language and dress, etc. Do the same with John Reid, make him a fleshed out person, not a painfully naive caracature. Make their relationship feel real. These are two men who choose to abandon their cultures and seek justice for all people. Make that real. That last is (IMO) the root of racism in the original Lone Ranger series. It was just assumed by those writers that "justice" meant protecting white settlers until there was a strong system of American law enforcement and courts. Helping ranchers, farmers, and townsfolk was considered good and Tonto helped cheerfully. They helped Native people occasionally, but only when some villain was stirring up trouble. There was never the awareness of the problems American laws and settlers caused Native people. A version of the story that really engages racism would have to put Tonto's values and vision of justice on an equal footing as the Lone Ranger's. It wouldn't exalt either settlers or natives, or demonize them. It would show two good men trying to help in the painful and often tragic clash of cultures that came with westward expansion. That's the Lone Ranger and Tonto movie I'd like to see.

Matthew Baugh
Matthew Baugh
Submitted by Matthew Baugh on
On Bass Reeves... I have serious doubts that the creators of the Lone Ranger (George Trendle, Fran Stryker, and James Jewel) were aware of Reeves. They don't seem to have been aware of much of the history of the west, as evidenced by the fact that they set the origin story in Texas but made Tonto a Potawatomi (a people found in the Great Lakes area). Bass Reeves is a fascinating and too-often overlooked figure. I'm glad that awareness about him is growing. He deserves to be known, but for his own place in history, not because of a dubious connection with the Lone Ranger.