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?
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.