Thursday, July 4, 2013

Johnny Depp plays Tonto in "The Lone Ranger". Is it just me, or is that a bit f*cked?

The remake of The Lone Ranger is out, and this picture tells you all you need to know about why I'm not going to see it, and why you shouldn't either.

I have nothing against Johnny Depp. He's a fine actor. However, Tonto is specifically a Native American character, and Johnny Depp is not Native American.

If this were a movie made in the 1950s, you could look back today and say, "Yeah, that's kinda racist and stupid, but that's just what it was like back then, just like how they got John Wayne to play Genghis Khan and so on." But this is a movie coming out in 2013. I cannot believe that no one involved in the making of this movie did not see the huge problem with this.

"Oh, but he's part Native American," I hear you say.

Listen, the dude is maybe 1/16 Native American or something. Maybe. He thinks his great-grandmother was Cherokee. I'm not an expert on what qualifies someone as Native American, but fuck it, I'm drawing a line - Johnny Depp is not Native American.

Now, hypothetically if Native Americans were some sort of extinct race of people like the Neanderthals and thus we had no Native American actors alive capable of representing what a Native American looks like, then I'd say fine, why not, let Johnny Depp play a Native American, 1/16 is about enough.

But there are a lot of Native Americans still out there, and some of them are actually actors trying to make it in the business. In that context, no, he's not sufficiently Native American.

Yes, there are Native American actors out there. None of them are big names on par with Johnny Depp. But then again, when they can't even get roles playing Native Americans, how are they meant to become big names?

There were a whole bunch of dudes in Twilight who would make a decent Tonto. I'm not talking Taylor Lautner, because his Native-ness is about as dubious as Johnny Depp's, but sheeeeet, he at least kinda looks the part so I'd even take him and his washboard abs at this point.

There's also Benjamin Bratt (Law and Order, Miss Congeniality), who's part-Peruvian rather than Native North American, but that's still a whole lot better than Johnny Depp. Plus he's kinda hot.

"But the film needs a big star," I hear you say, "and there's no Native American actor who is a big star comparable to Johnny Depp."

Hold up, the titular role in the movie is being played by Armie Hammer. Who the fuck is that? I had to google him, and it turns out that he's been in one movie that anyone's ever heard of (The Social Network). No disrespect to him, I'm sure he's a good actor. But let's keep it real here: no one, apart from those within Hammer's circle of family and friends, is going to be all, "Oh snap, we gotta go see The Lone Ranger, because Armie Hammer is in it!"

So think on this: the producers of this movie would be happy to give a huge break to a relatively little-known actor in the title role of The Lone Ranger, yet were not willing to give a similar break to a Native American actor in the other lead role.

You want a big star? Cast Brad fucking Pitt or someone like that as the The Lone Ranger, and give a Native American actor who people haven't really heard of a breakthrough role.

"But Johnny Depp is a great actor," I hear you say, "so shouldn't it be about who can give the best performance, rather than race?"

In that case, imagine if they gave the role of Abraham Lincoln in the movie Lincoln to Chow Yun Fatt, or Morgan Freeman, rather than Daniel Day-Lewis. Sure, that would be ridiculous, but those are two pretty fucking awesome actors right there, and that's all that counts, right? Right? But everyone just accepts that only a white guy is going to play Lincoln. And I totally agree with that, not just because Lincoln obviously was a white guy, but the whole narrative would not make sense if he was played by someone who wasn't white. Even if they pretended to be white by use of makeup and traditional white clothing.

In racial terms, there are two types of roles in film: ones where the race doesn't matter, and ones where race does matter. You could take the movie Flight and replace Denzel Washington with Tom Hanks, and it wouldn't really make any difference. But you couldn't get Tom Hanks to play the lead role in Malcolm X. (Though let's be honest, I'm sure someone in Hollywood would try.)

The role of Tonto is pretty much defined by him being Native American. Casting a white guy - even a slightly exotic-looking white guy with distant Native ancestry, maybe - is downright insulting.

There are very few roles available to Native American actors in the movie business as it is. No one is asking that any such actors be elevated to Will Smith-status if they don't deserve it. But in the one blockbuster flick in pretty much forever to feature a Native American lead character, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski had the opportunity to do something that wasn't even boundary-pushing, just logical... and they fucked it. With a stick. So fuck them.

So that's why you should not go and see this piece of shit movie. That, and the fact that it's got a 22% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

By the way, if you think the questions in this argument are ones that I just imagined, go read the comments here.


  1. I think you make very good points here. I agree. It's racist and unfair to Native American actors looking for work.

  2. I couldn't believe Deppe was playing an aborginal. I thought the stills and the posters were from a scene where his white character needed a disguise. I guess Lou Diamond Phillips from Longwire isn't a big enough star although he's much more credible as a genuine Cherokee.
    This is a new Hollywood (and Deppe)low.

    1. I initially thought about Lou Diamond Philips, but it turns out he's barely more Native than Depp. He looks the way he does because his mother is Filipino. However at least he would look the part.

  3. What minimum blood levels should be required for an actor to play X race?

    1. Case by case basis.

      But definitely Depp does not meet the "minimum". To illustrate, let's just change "Native American" for "African". Let's say in the movie "Blood Diamond", instead of Djimon Hounsou they cast a white actor who possibly had an African great-grandmother. Would that be acceptable? Would that be convincing as an African character?

  4. How did you feel about Map of the Human Heart (1993) where Jason Scott Lee (3/4 Chinese, 1/4 Hawaiian) played the character Avik, who is 1/2 Eskimo and 1/2 white, and Anne Paraillaud (French) who played Albertine (1/2 Native American, 1/2 Quebecois) and their daughter Rainee was also played by French Actress Clotilde Courau? None of the main actors were Eskimo / native American.

    Were you offended when Lucy Liu played a Eurasian character with a white father in Charlie's Angels?

    Just find it interesting that you picked this particular character to focus on. Maybe it is good for at least discussion purposes.

    I have never appreciated "yellowface" in Hollywood. That is still being done today, many decades after blackface fell out of favour.

    To tell the truth, Tonto is a fictional character created by white people. If I were Native American, or at least half (or mestizo), I am not sure I would want to play a stereotype dreamed up by white people.

    1. Re: Map of the Human Heart:
      haven't seen it and know next to nothing about it, thus difficult to comment. I dunno how many Inuit actors there are out there; I can imagine it being a bit difficult to find one, but other kinds of Native Americans are close enough. And Jason Scott Lee can pass in a way that Johnny Depp cannot.

      Re: Charlie's Angels:
      The race of the angels is immaterial, really, so I don't think I care. Was she actually meant to be Eurasian? Maybe it's her stepdad. Same deal in "Elementary" playing Joan Watson, which is a re-imagining of a classic tale so they can do what they want.

      Re: Tonto:
      I see your point. But at least they should be given the choice.

    2. I should have used the word Inuit. Sorry.
      Both Jason Scott Lee and Anne Paraillaud were playing characters that were half white, half native American (ie, Metis), yet neither were. They were not supposed to pass as Inuit or First Nations or white in their roles. That was more my point, not whether or not Jason Scott Lee could "pass" as Inuit.

      Juanita Hall, who was black American, played a South Pacific Islander in South Pacific and a Chinese woman in the Flower Drum Song, despite a majority Asian cast. Was that very wrong?

      I suppose others should have been given a chance (always a good idea), but since Tonto is a fictional character created by white people, I am not quite as bothered by that than if, say, he played ACTUAL Native American characters. For example,

      Canadian (First Nations) Adam Beach was selected to portray Anglo-Native American Charles Eastman in "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee".
      However, Serbian actor played Tecumseh in the 1972 German movie (well, it was a European film), but played by First Nations Canadian Michael Greyeyes in the 2009 film.

      Mizuo Peck portrayed Sacagawea in the film "Night at the Museum". She is of Japanese, Irish, English, and Cherokee descent. Is that OK? But the character was played by First Nations Alex Rice in Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West (2002) and by Caucasian actress Donna Reed in The Far Horizons (1955). That was common in the 50s anyhow-- Native Americans never got to portray themselves. But it seems like Hollywood seems to find more Canadian First Nations people than US Native Americans to play Native American roles.

    3. I get what you are saying about Tonto being fictional, but for me the key thing is that he is, by definition, Native American. And not only that, but an iconic Native American character in US popular culture.

      If a fictional character is clearly of a certain ethnicity AND the ethnicity is an integral, necessary part of who that character is, film-makers should go to reasonable lengths to find someone who more or less fits that ethnic profile.

      I'm assuming it's hard to make it as a Native American actor. The opportunity to play Tonto may be a white-created stereotype, but it's the rarest of rare opportunity for a Native American to be centre-stage in a Hollywood blockbuster. Some actor could have built a career out of it. Instead, they gave it to the white guy who was already a megastar. They appropriated Native culture, but didn't deem a Native guy worthy of appearing in it.

    4. American Native Americans in Hollywood films are extremely rare. In the examples I pointed out to above, nearly all the native American roles played by Native Americans involved Canadian (not American) actors. In some other films, they involved Latin American actors. How many American Native American actors can you name? Who would you nominate to play the role?

      Did you ever see the movie Billy Jack from the early 1970s? That movie was entirely about the contemporary conflict between whites and Native Americans. Again, a white guy portrayed the main character.

    5. The actors are out there, they just don't have the profile. Rudy Youngblood, for example, was the main character of Apocalypto. Ben Bratt is a medium-profile actor who would make a decent Tonto. Bratt is Peruvian, but he's within the racial ballpark. I don't think it really matters if a person is Canadian rather than USian, or even Latin American if they look right and are ethnically close enough. I mean, Idris Elba is Brit-African who made his rep playing a black Baltimore gangster.

    6. OK, I guess Rudy Youngblood is a good example.

      But I am not sure if you are playing more to phenotype than to ethnic background or nationality. You have no issue with non-Americans playing the role, or people who are 1/2 white, 1/2 Latin American, as long as they would come closer to your idea of phenotype. Was it OK for Q'orianka Kilcher (a German woman of European and Quecha descent) to play Pocohontas (a real Native American, not a fictitious person)? At what point exactly does it become not OK?

      Some Native Americans (ie, those who identify socially as such and are registered with a recognized Indian tribe) might be mostly Caucasian, with a phenotype not much more Native American looking than Johnny Depp. But if they played the role, they would be a US Native American playing a US Native American role, even if they might appear to be a Caucasian playing a Native American role. Would that be OK?

      OR would it be better for a non-Native American to play the role, but who fit the stereotypical phenotype a bit closer? For example, would it be better for Mark Dacascos to play such a role even though he is not of Native American descent at all?

      I pose this to you, in some ways, because you have often faced people who tell you that your "phenotype" does not match their idea of your actual ethnic and racial background. But would you be allowed to play something based on phenotype, but not on actual ethnic background? That happens to me too, that is why I am asking you.

    7. It's a fair question, but I don't think there are hard-and-fast rules about it.
      Ideally, you want someone who is more or less the right ethnicity AND phenotype.
      If you can't get the ethnicity, then go for someone with a phenotype that makes it at least believable; like Lou Diamond Phillips in "La Bamba", or Al Pacino in "Scarface".

      Depp has neither.

      Ultimately, my POV doesn't matter. But I think if I were a Native American actor, I would feel insulted by this casting.

      And another thing; I know that a big name like Depp equals more viewers. But something like the Lone Ranger is a brand of its own that doesn't need a big star - hence the casting of Armie Hamer. Note also the current "Man of Steel", which stars Henry Cavill in the main role. Who? Exactly. Yet it will still succeed at the box office.
      Hollywood is happy turning people into big stars if they are white. But when it comes to people of colour, it's easy to make the excuse that there is no one of suitably high profile.

  5. OK, I think you hit on a couple things.

    The current trend in Hollywood is to rehash old themes to save on marketing costs and to make more money. Better yet if they can get a recognized star, but with a well-known theme, it is less important.

    But one of the reasons for the trend to rehash old themes is because most of the revenue now comes from overseas. If they use a familiar theme, then it is much easier to attract overseas audiences.

    Superman and Spiderman (and James Bond, Alien) are well known themes overseas. They do not necessarily need a megastar to attract audiences. The Lone Ranger and Tonto is well known to American audiences, but virtually unknown overseas. They can start a brand image overseas, but initially, it would really help for the first installment to get an internationally well known actor to do at least one of the leading roles. Of all the top internationally famous actors (who are known to audiences, say, in China, India, Brazil, etc.), who could you get for this movie? This does not excuse the moral problems with it, but it explains the business rationale.

    We could also point out why often ASIAN actors are selected to star in Hollywood movies instead of Asian-American actors? We are likely to see Zhang ZiYi or Jet Li or Jackie Chan or Chow Yun Fat or Jay Chou star in Hollywood movies instead of locally grown Asian-Americans. Why is that? Well, when Asia is actually a bigger market for Hollywood movies than the US itself, they need every marketing schtick that they can grab. It is unfortunate that this helps to promote the "perpetual foreigner stereotype" in the USA and does not allow Asian-Americans to succeed. Indeed, it might be better for Asian Americans if they go to Asia and try to make a name for themselves first, then go back to the USA to capture Hollywood.

    I think TV is different. It seems like Asian-Americans may find it easier to land TV roles than Hollywood roles.

    I suspect that we might see the sequel to the Lone Ranger to be different, if the brand catches on in Asia. Once it catches on, they might not need to pay mucho bucks to Depp to draw the crowds. Even a sequal to Pirates of the Caribbean might be able to survive without Depp or Chow Yun Fat.

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  7. Thanks for a thought-provoking post! One way we can hear about up and coming actors is if they're actually cast in movies, television, saying that it's a catch-22 at times, how is someone supposed to prove their bankability in films if they're not given the chance? Understandably, there is a high financial risk in employing a smaller-named actor, but by the same token many bigger names have been involved in feature flops. Representation of ethnic minorities by ACTUAL ethnic minorities in the entertainment business is an issue I frequently feel overwhelmed by, because media is dominated by numbers and graphs rather than the importance of giving the story justice.

    My apologies for the sudden promotion, thing is, I’m creating a campaign for a uni project, I’m hoping that it will gather enough attention so to establish a major play at the Sydney Theatre Company with a multi-racial cast, please have a read of my posts, they’re quite short. Would love to hear your thoughts. I'm also optimistic that one day we'll have a minority the lead of a huge successful production, setting a precedent for many years to come. One play at a time I suppose.