Jul 3 2013 9:30am

So, The Lone Ranger Is a Western About Disenfranchised Peoples?

The Lone Ranger, Armie Hammer, Johnny Depp

All right, first question that everyone has been super concerned about from the beginning: is The Lone Ranger going to push everyone’s racism buttons? After all, frontier stories often have that problem, and the “white guy savior” complex has soured in our collective mouths over the years. When it was announced that Disney planned to revive this old favorite, many were giving this project the side eye and no one could blame them. So were the worries founded?


First things first: Johnny Depp is still playing Tonto. (Yeah, he’s 1/32 Cherokee or something—yet Jay Silverheels, who played him on the television show over sixty years ago, was a full-blooded Mohawk Indian. So this is not looking so great on the progress front.) That alone might be enough to set your heels sizzling, and that’s completely fair. His makeup as Tonto is inspired by a painting done by Kirby Sattler in 1991 titled “I am Crow,” which does not depict any actual American Indian regalia at all, but was instead dreamed up by the (white) artist. Still not looking so great. Also, he is basically an American Indian version of Jack Sparrow. The bird on his head even looks like his famous leather tricorn from certain angles. Hmm.

The Lone Ranger, Johnny Depp

Except the movie then goes out of its way to explain Tonto’s backstory and make it clear that his appearance and behaviors have nothing to do with him being an American Indian. All the magic he talks about, all the great spirits he invokes, and all his goofy posturing are affectations meant to guard him against a trauma. We do see actual American Indians in this film, and they are treated with a great deal of dignity and respect without descending into the condescension of “noble savagery.” The truth of how they were treated, framed, and depicted by white settlers is set in stark relief against Tonto’s antics and makes his brand of madness even more understandable—in face of the loss all these peoples suffered, it might be easier to play into stereotypes and let people think you’re a little bonkers. At least then you’ll be left to your own devices more often.

The Lone Ranger’s creed and character guidelines from inception demanded a white knight caliber that has always been too good to be true, and they’ve maintained that standard with Armie Hammer’s lovable-but-now-hapless John Reid. I give a lot of points to Hammer for being willing to play this kind of hero, the one who gets laughs at his expense, but manages it with earnestness and stubborn resolve. He begins the film as a lawyer, the Locke-reading sort who believes in ultimate good and ultimate justice. What’s refreshing is that the movie goes out of its way to prove his brand of justice will not stand in places where men answer to no one. The brains of their operation is clearly Tonto, and the Ranger doesn’t really come into his own until the final twenty minutes of the film.

The Lone Ranger, Armie Hammer, Johnny Depp

This handily sweeps aside the “great white guy saving all the little people who need him” trope. It’s (unsurprisingly) similar to the Pirates of the Caribbean gamut—Will Turner’s morality was out of place in a world full of pirates, and Captain Jack let him know that every chance he got. Now Reid’s morality is causing him the same ruckus in this world full of lawless cowboys, and Tonto is more than willing to call him “stupid white man” for it. And truthfully, that’s half the fun of the film.

The villains of the story are the true villains of history: the greedy ones who pushed out into lands they shouldn’t own, ruining ways of life for people they demonized, enslaved, and murdered. The heroes of the film are people whose stories usually aren’t told: people of color, unpaid laborers, prostitutes, and widows, and one single masked white guy who still can’t believe that all the other white men in the world aren’t on his side. More importantly, when the Ranger tries to fight on behalf of others, he’s often told to step aside and let them handle their own business, thanks very much.

Shocking, no?

The Lone Ranger, Comanche

Tonally, the movie is a bit all over the place. Unlike the Pirates films, which handily balanced dark drama with buffoonery, Lone Ranger’s drama comes from a very real and painful place, making it harder to take the comic tradeoffs when they come. All the same, when the film is on point it’s full of laughs, and the action is appropriately unbelievable at every turn. That unbelievability serves them very well right at the end—after all, if the Lone Ranger and Tonto are legends to us all, their feats should be legendary in size, taking on a peculiar patina that may be the result of an unreliable narrator….

For fans of The Lone Ranger, there are a number of excellent shoutouts and much more. The framing device for the movie is a very old Tonto telling the story to a boy while he’s on display in a sideshow—in the year 1933, the same year that The Lone Ranger premiered on the radio. Reid’s backstory is pretty much identical to his original makings, down to the death of his brother and Butch Cavendish being the first bad guy he faces down. The making of his mask is true to the origin story, but with an extra twist, and silver bullets do play into the tale. The details of how the Ranger obtains and subsequently bonds with his horse Silver steals the movie at several points. Lone Ranger’s theme, now and forever the “William Tell Overture,” is employed expertly at various key points in the story. It’s never overused and every time it begins you get that happy lurch in your chest. In addition, the Ranger’s favorite catchphrase “Hi-yo, Silver, away!” is employed to just brilliant effect.

The Lone Ranger, Armie Hammer, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter

It sets itself up easily for a sequel, and that will clearly be the film that makes or breaks this reboot—if the next movie doesn’t watch its footing, it will risk making its first attempt look cynical in hindsight. If Reid and Tonto are riding for justice, let’s hope they make their careers by continuing to help those who truly need the most helping. An alternate universe, if you will, where the western frontier was rendered perhaps a bit less bloody due to the help of two friendly strangers. If they manage it, “that masked man” may find a home in our hearts all over again.

Emily Asher-Perrin has a mother who adored Lone Ranger as a kid, and actually thinks that she might enjoy the heck out of this film. She was recently on the Geeks Guide to the Galaxy podcast talking about Star Trek Into Darkness, and an essay of hers can be found in the newly released Queers Dig Time Lords. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

Christopher Bennett
1. ChristopherLBennett
In fact, Tonto's rather exceptional in that, until now, he has always been played in live action (and in Filmation's 1980 animated series) by actual Native American/First Nations actors -- discounting spoof versions like Jon Lovitz's on Saturday Night Live. The only previous white actors to play the role were John Todd in the original radio series and Shepard Menken in the 1966 animated series. So casting Depp in the role seems like a major step backward -- and part of a disturbing trend in Hollywood whitewashing lately. (William Fichtner as Shredder? Seriously?)

Your review is rather reassuring on that front, but still, it feels that the film's message would be more sincere if they'd cast a more authentic Tonto. Then again, I suppose that aside from his casting, Tonto in the past was generally not a very authentic or respectful portrayal of Native Americans (though versions from Filmation's onward have tried to correct that), so maybe they're making some kind of point about the inauthenticity of the character.
Keith DeCandido
2. krad
Except if they cast a more authentic Tonto, the movie wouldn't have gotten made. What got this thing green-lit was Depp's involvement.

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Emily Asher-Perrin
3. EmilyAP
@ChristopherLBennett and krad -

Jay Silverheels always did say that it bothered him that Tonto spoke in broken English, so the point about inauthenticity really might be true there. Very interesting thought. I did see someone the other day point out that Depp could have played the Lone Ranger instead and then they could have gotten an appropriate actor to play Tonto, but I'm guessing the whole point was that he wanted a crack at the character specifically. *Sigh* It really is unfortunate.
Dave Thompson
4. DKT
Thanks for the thoughtful review. It's nice to know they tried on some fronts to make it more aware socially, even if they failed on some of those fronts (and several others, like pacing, etc.).
Rich Bennett
5. Neuralnet
thanks for the review. I might go see it now. At first I thought they were crazy to cast Depp as Tonto since at first glance it comes across as a white guy in black face that is there just to sell tickets... but I love the pirates of the carribean movies and if the movie does treat native americans with dignity/respect then maybe it is ok to see???
Sky Thibedeau
6. SkylarkThibedeau
It just looks awful not because of the PC stuff but cause it looks boring like the "Wild, Wild, West".
7. Herb111
"First things first: Johnny Depp is still playing Tonto. (Yeah, he’s 1/32 Cherokee or something—yet Jay Silverheels, who played him on the television show over sixty years ago, was a full-blooded Mohawk Indian. So this is not looking so great on the progress front.)"

Evidently not, since some people still insist on sticking characters into racial buckets and insisting those matter.
Mordicai Knode
8. mordicai
2. krad
Except if they cast a more authentic Tonto, the movie wouldn't have gotten made.
I'm comfortable with that.
Deana Whitney
9. Braid_Tug
I don't think Depp would be a good Lone Ranger. Not the right type of attitude. He’s better at playing the crazy guy.

Plus I give Depp credit. He went to Lawton, OK, to attend the Comanche Nation Fair last year after he was made an honorary Comanche.

Then he showed up in June for a screening of the movie with a “date” in the form of LaDonna Hairris, the president of the Americans for Indian Opportunity group. She is also a Comanche.
So I would say that Depp is giving lots of respect to Native Americans.

At 1/32, that means his great-great-grandparent was full blood. That’s what my son is, he & I are on the rolls for the Choctaw Tribe. And that is more than many people can claim. I’m glad they are claiming it.

I’m on the Choctaw rolls rather than the Cherokee Tribe, because it was so shameful to be Native American 50+ years ago. My Cherokee Great-Grandmother refused to acknowledge her blood. Some relatives claimed African American blood over Native American blood in the past – when segregations was a real thing. What does that tell you about how the Tribes were seen?
10. Ragnarredbeard
Depp playing Tonto doesn't bother me all that much - it is, after all, a movie and he is, after all, an actor - but what bothers me is they've made a piss poor movie.

Why can't they make a decent movie? Why does it have to have a message? Why does it have to have an inane storyline? Why does it need bigger explosions?

Here's a tip, Hollywood: make a decent movie and people will go and see it; make drek and people will stay home.
Jesús Couto Fandiño
11. Breogan
As a Spanish speaker it was a shock to me to find out the character is named Tonto. Thats, literally, "Dumb" in Spanish. We got it dubbed as "Toro" (Bull).

Kind of a difficult start for taking a respectful look at the Native Americans. Or does the name come from other language/meaning?
James Whitehead
12. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
According to the following link, 'Tonto' means 'Wild One' in Potawatomi, the tribe Tonto is supposed to be from. Here it is:

Wikipedia says that Tonto is changed into 'Toro' when translated into Spanish as those in charge are aware what Tonto means when translated.

My youngest wants to see this so I guess I'll see for myslef how the movie does.

13. RobertX
Depp an Indian? Nope, can't get past that.
15. Colin R
It kind of seems like there are two entwined issues here. First, that 'Tonto' as a role is an Indian and has traditionally been played by Indians. Johnny Depp's claims aside (a ridiculous number of americans claim Cherokee heritage on similar grounds), I don't think the Cherokee consider him one of them--for all intents and purposes he is white. I think this is legitimately a shame; it's probably true that the movie wouldn't have been made without Depp's involvement, but that doesn't really mean anything.

Second though is the portrayal of Tonto within the film and Depp's actual depiction, and it sounds pretty interesting. Tonto being basically a front for a wounded man is kind of a neat take--I got the impression that it is perhaps even suggested that Tonto is not really an Indian at all? Maybe I misheard that. And the film itself seems to identify the proper villains and sympathetic parties in the story, even if it is constrained by the formula of a summer action movie.

Is there a conflict between these two points? I dunno. I had written off the movie, but some of the reviews have interested me. Sometimes a movie with deep problems can still be really interesting. The Searchers is both a classic and a seriously problematic picture. Not that I'm suggesting this movie is The Searchers.
16. puck
@Braid_Tug I love Johnny Depp, but his claims of "Cheerokee Blood" are not proven, even by himself. He said he thought he might have based on where he was from, but has no proof, or even WHO it was in his family that was supposedly native. It's the "Cheerokee Princess" joke all over. I'm sure many people have native blood they don't know of (as your example of your great-grandmother), but they aren't in a position of representing a minority in a traditionally stereotypical/racist role.

I read the Commanche made him a member because one of the leaders heard he was going to play Tonto and she wanted to make sure some First Nations representative was around to teach him. Not because they thought he was legit, necessarily.

All that aside, I would like to see a wild west film with Depp in it, but even with this review I'm still hesitant. Depp could have played the Lone Ranger, but he wanted to be the "fun" driving force in the film. Without a First Nations actor, it's still offensive to me.
17. James Davis Nicoll
Depp turns out to be one of those actors who thinks it's not rape when it's a famous director who is the convicted felon who then flees to escape justice, so I had no plans to see this movie. I have limited time to see movies and there are movies not starring terrible people I'd rather support.
18. Alright Then
Funny though you never hear about how offensive Iron Eyes Cody is to Native Americans. (He was of Italian descent.)

Perhaps it's a matter of playing it straight or playing it for laughs.
19. Tehanu
All I can think every time I see the billboards is, "Johnny! Lose the bird!"

I loved Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels. It was one of the biggest thrills of my life to see Clayton Moore in the Rose Parade one year. I'm not saying nobody should make a movie that updates something old like that -- they have a perfect right to try -- but it's hard to see how it can work.
20. SueQ
Jay Silverheels was born & grew up in Canada. A friend of mine was a buddy of his when they were kids. Several years ago, he was stopped for fuel in Las Vegas,Nevada and heard someone call his name. There stood Jay Silverheels. Hometown reunion thousands of miles/kilometres from home.
Christopher Bennett
21. ChristopherLBennett
@18: The thing is, though, Cody seems to have assimilated pretty fully into Native American culture in real life, not just as a put-on for the screen. I don't think that's offensive, since that actually fits in well with Native American traditions.

Historically, it was commonplace for Native American communities to adopt outsiders, to define identity not by race or bloodline but by the band or village one chose to become a part of. In early colonial days, many European settlers ended up being adopted into indigenous communities. At first it was out of necessity, since the early English colonists were largely clueless about survival and would've been doomed without the assistance of the natives. The "great mystery" of what happened to the Roanoke colony is really no mystery at all -- the colony failed and its people were adopted into the Croatan community (they even left a sign telling people where they'd ended up), and they became so fully assimilated that when later settlers encountered their descendants, the former didn't realize the latter's ancestry. Later on, many colonists found the Native life much freer, healthier, and more egalitarian than their European ways and thus voluntarily joined indigenous communities. And on some occasions, hostages were taken in battle and assimilated into their abductors' communities, as had often been the case between different indigenous bands/villages for generations. These European adoptees became fully assimilated, intermarried with the indigenous people, and so forth, and they were considered full members of their adoptive communities.

Cody seems to have followed a similar life path, assimilating within the Native American culture, marrying a Native American woman, and adopting Native American children. In the past, in the 17th or 18th century, plenty of native communities would've felt that fully qualified him as one of them, regardless of his ancestry.
22. puck
If you want a review from some one with a First Nations POV, this is an excellent place to go as always:

So yeah, I won't be seeing it. It's pretty bad in a lot of ways.
Liz J
23. Ellisande
At this point to me, it wouldn't matter if it was Johnny Depp in a remake of Little Women, I am just so tired of his ... caricatures? I don't even know if that's the word I'm looking for, but all of his characters lately have been the same, over the top ridiculousness. I used to like him as an actor, but too much Tim Burton and Jack Sparrow have made him unwatchable.

At least Armie Hammer already has his next big project lined up so his career doesn't ride on this debacle.
Cleveland Dawsey
24. crdawsey
Holly wood is taking a very big risk with this one. For one thing, I am old enough to remember a 1981 turkey of a film called "The Legend of the Lone Ranger" It starred an actor named Klinton Spilsbury. Remember him? No? It's no wonder because that was the one and only thing he ever acted in. The movie tanked at the box office, bringing in just 12 million dollars. Johnny Depp is great but he will have to carry this movie. I don't know if there are enough Lone Ranger fans out there to bring in the cash for this one. Keep your fingers crossed.
James Nicoll
25. JamesDavisNicoll
Isn't "The Legend of the Lone Ranger" a text-book case of how to poison public perception of your film? That's the one where they thought it would be an A Plus move to sue Clayton Moore, who played the Lone Ranger in the 1950s, to keep him from making appearances as the Lone Ranger. PR-wise, it was like trying get a new edutainment show off the ground by suing Mr. Rogers.
26. Alright Then

How much authenticity should we demand of actors? Of course, race is a touchy subject, but I can't help but think of some varying standards.

Take Asian actors for instance. The Japanese character Hoshi Sato was played by Korean-American actress Linda Park in Star Trek Enterprise. Should that have been considered offensive as well?
Christopher Bennett
27. ChristopherLBennett
@26: I don't think it's intrinsically a problem for actors to be cast as different ethnicities than their own, as long as they're close enough for it to be credible. After all, acting is about pretending to be something you're not. What matters is equal employment opportunity. As long as actors of certain ethnicities aren't being discriminated against, as long as everyone gets a fair shake at being gainfully employed, then the exact matching of actor ethnicity to character ethnicity is a secondary issue. After all, characters aren't real. They don't have to earn a living. Actors do.

So if Asian-American actors are being included, getting fair opportunities for good-paying work, I don't see it as a problem if their characters aren't the exact same ethnicity that they are, any more than it's a problem for, say, a Canadian actor to play a Scotsman or an English actor to play a Frenchman. The problem is if there's a systematic pattern of casting white actors in roles that are intended to be Asian or other ethnicities. Because then Asian or other actors aren't getting a fair shake at gainful employment. And that's what's really at stake here: fair hiring.
28. Ragnarredbeard

The thing that always got me about the character is not that a Korean woman was playing a Japanese woman, but that the producers didn't just rename her Chae Park. Was there an operative reason the character had to be Japanese?

Its kinda like TNG having a French captain played by a British guy. Being French, as far as I can tell, really had no impact on the series. So why not just make him British and be done with it?
Gerd K
29. Kah-thurak
Well they are actors you know. They pretend to be other people. It is their job. Next you will complain that the engineer wasnt played by an engineer, but by an actor...
Christopher Bennett
30. ChristopherLBennett
I once saw a local theater production of Hamlet where Hamlet was played by a white actor and his biological uncle Claudius was played by a black actor. The text was not adjusted in any way to address this. We were expected to be able to recognize that they were performers playing roles.
James Nicoll
31. JamesDavisNicoll
Its kinda like TNG having a French captain played by a British guy.

That could mean Picard grew up in l'anglosphere or had a British language tutor or or or. Lots of connections between France and Britain; that's why they've spent most of the last millennium fighting each other. It's not like the MacDonalds and Campbells, with dramatic differences anyone can spot: one Norman-dominated group is a lot like another.

When you think about it, French is just Latin with a strong accent, and English is what happens when Germans try to speak French. They're practically the same language!

Now, casting Marlon Brando to play an Okinawan was simultaneously completely typical of how casting was done back then and a bad idea. Although not as bad as John Wayne playing Genghis Khan.

These days the way it works is the PR people will make mouth-noises about inclusive casting and then HR will cast a group of actors who look like a recruiting poster for the Aryan Brotherhood.
Christopher Bennett
32. ChristopherLBennett
@31: Well, it depends. On the one hand, comic-book adaptations do a good job replacing the white-dominated casts of the original '40s or '60s creations with more ethnically diverse casts. We've had plenty of nonwhite or mixed-ethnicity actors as traditionally white comics characters over the past few decades: Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent, Michael Clark Duncan as Kingpin, Dean Cain as Superman, Kristin Kreuk as Lana Lang, Sam Jones III as Pete Ross, Alessandro Juliani as Emil Hamilton, Will Smith as Agent J (as well as Jim West and Robert Neville in non-comics remakes), Dania Ramirez as Callisto, Bill Duke as Bolivar Trask, Kerry Washington as Alicia Masters, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Idris Elba as Heimdall, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White. And Michael B. Jordan is under consideration to play Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four reboot. Beyond comics, we've got Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter in the new Bond series (and in the '70s Bernie Casey played the role once). So there is some progress toward colorblind casting in some quarters.

Yet at the same time, we've got a disturbing trend in the other direction in the past few years: the leads in The Last Airbender, Cumberbatch in Star Trek Into Darkness, Depp as Tonto, and now Fichtner as Shredder. Films that should have ethnically inclusive casting are lacking in that regard. So it's getting better in some quarters but worse in others.

Which, really, is what we see happening nationwide when it comes to inclusion, not just in movies. The Supreme Court eliminated discrimination against gay marriage the day after it hobbled protection against voter discrimination by race. We have a black president and the leading choice for the next Democratic nominee is a woman, which would've been amazing just 10 years ago, but lawmakers in various states are trying to pass laws that roll back all the progress women and minorities have made in the past 60 years. These are turbulent times, with forces trending in both directions.
Lynn McDonald
33. meal6225
On a very rainy July 4th were outdoor activities had to all be canceled--The Lone Ranger was a very entertaining indoor way to pass a couple hours.Wasn't looking for deep social commentary so was pleasantly surprised with how the "Noble Savage" issue was handled (well). As an action movie is was a great change of pace--the ending "train chase" beat out every car chase I've seen in cinema in the past 10 years at least. Silver steals so many scenes go see the movie just for The Horse alone!
34. rea
Leontyne Price was a great Madame Butterfly, even though she didn't exactly physically resemble a young Japanese girl.
James Nicoll
35. JamesDavisNicoll

The Supreme Court eliminated discrimination against gay marriage

Some, anyway. Still lots of places in the US where same sex marriage is not an option. Still, lagging a decade or so behind the Netherlands is very advanced for the US, very advanced.

Someone proposed an amusing thought experiment involving two men who are married to each other in a state that allows that, one of whom is married to a woman in a state that doesn't recognize same sex marriage. Can the guy common to both marriages be convicted of bigamy?
Rob Rater
36. Quasarmodo
This looks like a movie I would put in a category with Green Lantern and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that I think look terrible but that I probably have to see if for no other reason than to know what I'm talking about when I leave snarky comments.
37. Alright Then
Well, after seeing Lone Ranger, I'll say the whole Tonto racial thing is the least of this movie's problems---the main one being its length. If they could cut the fat and edit it down to 90 minutes, it would probably make a decent flick.
39. glorbes
Perhaps I could overlook somewhat the cultural insensitivity if the movie weren't such a plodding piece of crap.

Depp's performance was actually quite terrible...there was something so lazy and listless about the whole thing. The tics he developed for the character weren't amusing, and his delivery just sleepy.

I think the Western as a genre is dying for a reason, especially when it is dealing with Native American history. Its hard to make a fun popcorn movie about brutal and devastating genocide, and this movie is proof positive. If it was a hard-hitting betcha, but this is not what the movie was trying to be (I think...I have no idea actually who this movie was made for).

The Lone Ranger is a relic, as is Tonto as a character, and it is clear now that this movie was ill-conceived in every way. Having a 2 1/2 hour movie alternating between Depp and Armie Hammer mugging for the camera and a whole Comanche group being wiped out in a brual and violent fashion doesn't really make for a tonally consistent experience (also, a child being brutalized, and a cannibal villain who eats people's This movie reminded me of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in a way, because you have this goofy attempt at levity that doesn't really work, cut in with really dark, violent content that throws the whole thing the fact that the film is full of offensive crap.

Also, I thought this movie would never, ever end. It felt like it was 5 hours long.
40. Sean Bircher
I realize it's months and months later, but I'd like Emily to realize she's not alone in liking the movie. Here's my equally-enthusiastic review:

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