I don’t normally like to get into these sort of discussions, because there are way too many opinions to sift through – as well as way too many blogs that seem preachy, at best – but, this topic is sorta within my realm of expertise.
Latest news: Disney is going to make a Lone Ranger film with Johnny Depp playing Tonto.
Now, I’m all for a new Lone Ranger and Tonto flick, as these are some of my favorite childhood heroes AND I believe popular culture could use a new injection of how to portray an Indigenous character in popular media. I say this last part with hope that there will be some intelligent script-writing that will allow Tonto to be a real (human) character and not just a simple caricature…of course, we ARE talking about Disney here, so it’s anyone’s guess as to whether they understand how to do this (Pocahontas, anyone?).
Yet, casting Depp as Tonto gives me an itchy feeling at the back of my sterotype-sensing neck. This is the very sort of thing I mention in my writings (see previous blog entries on Native Americans in video games and my book, Native Americans in Comic Books, should you be interested), namely that not only do Indigenous people need to PORTRAY Indigenous characters (either in front of the camera or in voice acting work, such as in video games), but we must also be PART of the creative process when depicting Native American characters.
Unless there has been some major announcement I am not aware of, this is not the case. Don’t get me wrong, I like Depp and his characters are almost always entertaining in one fashion or another. However, I still maintain that Tonto would be best portrayed by a Native American.
Yet, over the years, Depp has alluded that he shares this ancestry and “he is of Cherokee, Irish, and German descent, with some Navajo as well.” (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000136/bio) I don’t doubt this is true, as one could argue that some of his physical features fall in line with what many people feel are “Native” type features. Even if this is true, even if Depp is Native American, does that mean he is a good choice to play an Indigenous character of such prominence? A character that, after years and decades of misrepresentation, MUST be depicted in a positive light and one that accurately represents Indigenous culture?
To this, I must sadly answer, no, Depp is most likely not the best choice to play Tonto. While do not dispute his ethnicity in any way, I must question whether he is actually a PART of these Native communities. Was he raised near one of the tribal communities he mentions above? Did he have relatives that demonstrated specific Indigenous culture to him? Has he taken part in any of the aforementioned tribal communities, either socially, culturally, or ceremonially? Perhaps he has, but I find no mention of these activities.
As many before me over the years have stated and restated ad nauseum, we must have Native American people portray Native characters. No one would suggest black-face characters any more (unless, it’s making fun of that portrayal, as in the recent, Tropic Thunder), so why do we have non-Native actors working as our characters? I’m not suggesting that Tonto ONLY be played by the darkest, longest-haired, fullest-blood, “true-ist” Native person ever (I am pretty sure such a creature does not exist)…but, please, find someone that at least has both the ancestry AND the cultural ties to allow that actor the specific insight needed to accurately imbue the Tonto character as a true representative of Native American humanity.
If we get that taken care of, the only problem left is getting some Native screen writers to get a piece of the action!