Red In The Face - Little Outrage Over 'Lone Ranger's' Native American Non-Casting

Features
by Kevin Robinson
July 3, 2013 2:16 PM
26 Comments
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The latest big screen version of The Lone Ranger has descended upon the movie going public in the year 2013 A.D (or B.C.E).  Regardless of what abbreviation you assign to the year, it’s the 21st Century.  The Lone Ranger was a television serial in the late 1940′s and early 1950′s that spawned two films during that time frame.  The series and films starred Clayton Moore as the iconic masked lawman and Jay Silverheels as his riding buddy and ally Tonto.  Together on their trusted steeds Silver and Scout respectively, they righted wrongs and brought the guilty to justice in the American Old West.

Jay Silverheels was of Native American ancestry.  In the new version, the character Tonto (that he made famous and could not escape from) is played by Johnny Depp, a white actor.  Why is this?  The reasons are varied and complex.

Depp is an A-list actor that has wanted to bring another Lone Ranger version to the screen for some time now.  Word has it that it was his wish to play the Tonto character.  A lot of people said that there was no way the film would get such a huge budget ($250mil), let alone get made if a big name actor wasn’t attached to the project.  Moviegoers won’t see a film like this if no-names are in it, I guess.  

To deflect some of the criticism of having a non-Native actor in this role, Depp himself has stated that he “probably” has some Cherokee or Creek blood from way back, since he is from Kentucky.  That is to be disputed.  

In another, maybe not so curious move, Walt Disney Studios held a world premiere at Disney California Adventure Park complete with red carpet, the film’s stars and filmmakers in attendance, along with other Hollywood celebrities.  Silver even made an appearance.  To commemorate the occasion, all the ticket sales from the event (at $1,000 a clip) went to the American Indian College Fund.  In addition, a Kawasaki Ninja(?) motorcycle was being auctioned off at a later date with proceeds going towards the fund.

I spoke with the American Indian College Fund president, Cheryl Crazy Bull about her thoughts on all of this hoopla.  It should be noted that the fund does a lot of good work to help kids go to college by providing scholarships as best they can.  Ms. Crazy Bull told me that they sold roughly 156 tickets to the event, which breaks down to $156k.  Disney Studios also had a matching grant of $100k.  If you throw in the motorcycle, then upwards of $300k was raised that evening.  She told me the average cost of attending one of the tribal colleges is about $13k/year.  Doing the math, the proceeds amount to putting 6 kids through college.  Remember, the budget for this film was $250 million.  Venture to guess what the box office will be?  Imagine if Mr. Depp had donated a large percentage of his salary to the fund, since he is “Cherokee or Creek”.  Give back to the people!  Or if the studios gave a percentage of the box office take.  Wouldn’t that be something?

“I Am Crow” By Kirby Sattler
Instead of trying to “buy off” the community, how about having a Native American actor maybe not play Tonto (although that should have been a no-brainer), but play the Lone Ranger?  Someone like Adam Beach, Tokala Clifford, or Zahn McClarnon would be perfect.  If there are sequels, that is something Hollywood should strongly consider.  But to have a film starring two white actors (Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger) when one of the characters clearly is not, smacks of whitewashing.  The Screen Actors Guild should have come out against this.  The NAACP should have come out against this along with Native American groups.  If they did, they should have been more vocal.  

Another interesting fact, the look of Tonto in this film is inspired by the painting at left entitled “I Am Crow”… by a white artist.


Kevin Robinson is the executive producer of Medium Rare (www.mediumraretv.org), a site that focuses on the work of women and people of color in film, television, and video games. Let me know if you need anything else.

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26 Comments

  • Oskar Bragi | July 13, 2013 8:32 AMReply

    This may not have any bearing on the issue of Depp as Tonto,
    but Johnny did star in another western "generally regarded" as a respectful and nuanced portrayal of Native Americans ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Man).

  • Charke | July 8, 2013 4:47 PMReply

    Your comment "...by a white artist" is racist. You have said that something is wrong with the painting because the artist is white. That's racism. If you had said the picture was inaccurate in some fashion, if you had researched it, then you could have justified your accusation.

    Having a white actor play an iconic native American role, and having that movie succeed on the big screen, means that society is willing to accept the equality of the two races. It is something women continue to struggle to achieve. Obviously we'd love to see the opposite - the idea of a native actor playing the Lone Ranger would be great - but this is still a step forward.

  • ALM | July 8, 2013 8:02 PM

    It's a step forward to erase a character of Native American descent when there are almost zero roles for Native Americans in Hollywood? Wow. You must be using sarcasm or you are smoking on something really potent.

  • bb | July 8, 2013 5:25 PM

    Bye!

  • justsayin | July 5, 2013 4:55 PMReply

    if white guys can't act in non-white roles, does this mean homosexuals can't act in straight roles and vise versa?

  • belmont1929 | July 5, 2013 12:33 PMReply

    See Illinois U. Native American Studies Professor's commentary on this issue at salon.com, and another story on this at alternet.org. The Native American community has been on this for some time and, like African Americans on their own issues, is not of one mind. Hollywood and Depp knew they were on tenuous ground and tried to get out in front of the issue, but it seems to me it fell flat. As for the comment that Black folks should stay out of this and not comment ... I can't figure out how to respond to that .... wow.

    On the other hand, the injustice that allows African American, Native American, Mexican American, etc., stereotypes to continue to flourish generally spreads them out quite evenly so human rights activists tend not to be so reductive. And, not all Indian tribes have participated in the rejection of Black members.

  • Donella | July 6, 2013 2:41 PM

    The reason why you cannot figure out how to respond is because you did not read or if you did read, you didn't comprehend. Most people are of the mind that it is fair and reasonable to expect Native Americans to TAKE THE LEAD on issues that concern Native American culture and heritage. No one said "no comment." Again, if you reflect on what's facing you from your computer screen, clearly we've commented. READ AGAIN!

  • ALM | July 4, 2013 7:01 PMReply

    "Instead of trying to “buy off” the community, how about having a Native American actor maybe not play Tonto (although that should have been a no-brainer), but play the Lone Ranger?"

    That's too much like right, and when has representation in the media ever been "right"?

    I keep up with popular culture news. The sad thing is, I had to look up each of the three actors listed above because I was not familiar with them. When I look at their bodies of work, 80% of their work has been in stereotypical roles, i.e. westerns.

    The Native American population is the original community of America, but they have been all but erased from bot the media and the population. It's really sad.

  • ALM | July 8, 2013 9:53 AM

    *both

  • Donella | July 4, 2013 2:02 PMReply

    Like Marie, I've declined several previews this summer. I've been repulsed by the escalating level of violence that makes me feel assaulted rather than entertained. I'm passing the Lone Ranger by because I find the casting of Depp as Tonto akin to wearing red-face. It turns me off and so I'm not going to bother with the movie. As for Depp's ancestry claim, unless he also claims Native American ancestry on his driver's license, in business, and in other important aspects of his life, it's a big pile of opportunistic bull to me. Having said that, I do believe Native Americans should lead the response to this casting choice in the Lone Ranger just as Asians led the response to the casting choices in The Last Airbender. So many groups dwell on "not making waves" and being the "model minority" rather than standing up and speaking out, and then try to guilt-trip African Americans into taking up their burdens in addition to our own and fighting their fights. That can wear people out, burn them out, spread them too thin. Sometimes I look at the old Civil Rights era news photos just to see who's standing in the gap with my own ancestors and I find certain groups of people missing from the images.

  • MK | July 5, 2013 10:59 AM

    Well said.

  • Kelly | July 4, 2013 9:43 AMReply

    His Great -Great -Great -Great -Great -Great -Great -Great -Great -Great -Great -Great -Great -Great -Great -Great -Great -Great -Great -Great -Great -Great -Great -Great -Great Grandma was Native American so its cool.

  • scriptTease | July 4, 2013 2:01 AMReply

    REALLY! Should anyone be surprised?

  • Daryl | July 3, 2013 11:05 PMReply

    if through people opion of bieng outrage is right, this conversation is getting old. Hollywood is going to be hollywood. We have the tools and distribution to put the images we want to see out. If you want thins to change support the indie filmmakers that is making it happen. When these films start making money on the regular, hollwood will change over night, but just calling hollywood out on their bs is going to do nothing because they look at it like this, so what you don't have nowhere else to go, so we going to get your monewy anyway or we'll give you a bs donation to shut you up. Talk with your money that's when you will be heard and things will change.

  • EP | July 3, 2013 10:44 PMReply

    Hollywood don't give 3 Fuc*'s what anyone thinks...

  • MaxFrisson | July 3, 2013 8:15 PMReply

    Johnny Depp was the star of the movie, this is the Lone Ranger from Tonto perspective and no other actor could have turned in that performance, there's only one Johnny Depp and his ethnicity does NOT matter. What the heck is make-up for?

  • FactChecker | July 3, 2013 7:28 PMReply

    On the one hand I agree that we should be fighting all injustice against people of color, but I think black people are just plain tired of the fight. Other People of Color seem to invoke the "civil rights movement" when it's convenient for their agenda, but I don't see them aligning themselves, overall, with blacks on issues of import to our community.

    That said, google an OpEd written earlier this week by Daniel Levinson Wilk, titled: "Deen's Racist wedding fantasy was once a reality." It says a lot about our current state of acceptance of the remnants of our racist past -- as it relates to ALL communities of color.

  • Really? | July 3, 2013 4:39 PMReply

    This is not Black folks problem. Why do some of us feel the need to fight other's battles? Let Native Americans deal with this. They are not children and can speak for themselves.

  • BluTopaz | July 5, 2013 9:48 AM

    Agreed with Really. Let the Native American tribes who refuse to acknowledge their Black descendants kvetch over who's playing Tonto.

  • MLK | July 3, 2013 4:52 PM

    Because injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

  • MLK | July 3, 2013 4:51 PM

    Because a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

  • Nadell | July 3, 2013 3:54 PMReply

    People of color should almost expect this. If 'black face' was done for blacks, guarantee, other POC are not exempt from this being done to their legends and icons.
    It is so disappointing that this is 2013 and the industry still feels the need to culturally violate iconic figures. Rather it is just an outright refusal to cast POC when necessary.
    I'm waiting on Halle Berry to play a bio on "The Queen of England" and The Rock to play ...oh, just insert whomever you want!

  • Marie | July 3, 2013 3:40 PMReply

    I was appalled at the casting of Depp as Tonto and am disappointed that more people aren't as well. I had an opportunity to see the film in preview and chose to boycott. I am personally tired that those of European descent are "allowed" by Hollywood to play anyone of any ethnic background yet the same does not apply to those who are not of European descent. There are black Americans who have as much Native American ancestry as Depp claims to have yet they would never had been considered for this role. Imagine the public outrage if an Asian-American had been cast as Batman! I agree with Robinson that there are plenty of Native American actors who could've played this role. If a Native American actor is denied the opportunity to play the role of someone with his same ethnicity, what other opportunities will he get? Colorblind casting in the US only applies to whites—they have endless opportunities to play anyone while everyone else is severely limited. It's 2013, this casting is outrageous.

  • Lawrence | July 3, 2013 3:38 PMReply

    He's actually a descendant of Elizabeth Key Grinstead. An African American woman.

  • jay | July 3, 2013 2:36 PMReply

    for what its worth, depp is of native american ancestry.

  • Tom Haverford | July 3, 2013 2:45 PM

    Beyond what was addressed in the article?

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