Fisking Cultural Norms: The Lone Ranger


I have been awaiting the reviews of “The Lone Ranger” ever since the idea was first announced. The idea of Hollywood doing a grittier, more realistic reboot of ANYTHING is both fun and horrifying at the same time, and has only led to good a small percentage of the time. However, it has led to amusement and discussion of tropes 100% of the time, and that’s where I come in, ready for a good fisking. I want do something a little different, though. I want to boil down the basics of what is being communicated with the look of movie, and contrast it with the goals of Johnny Depp and the producers. Here are the things that were said BEFORE the movie came out. This is from an interview with MTV:

“I like the idea of having the opportunity to sort of make fun of the idea of Indian as sidekick…throughout the history of hollywood, the Native American has always been the second class, third class, fourth class, fifth class citizen, and I don’t see Tonto that way at all. So it’s an opportunity for me to salute Native Americans.” Johnny Depp

This seems like a very respectable goal. If I were to sum up his goals as stated in this comment it would go like this:
A: Portray the character as a first class citizen
B: Portray him as a character worthy of respect
C: Make sure that the character is portrayed as something to “salute”, aka that Native peoples today can be proud of

There has always been a history of actors working closely with designers to come up with the best visual representations of their ideals for the characters. This was brought to the public eye in a very obvious way, however, when Johnny Depp talked at length about how he came up with most of the costume ideas for Captain Jack Sparrow. As far as the character goes, Sparrow was a great achievement of creating a pirate captain in such a vibrant, realistic and iconic way, without resorting to pirate stereotypes other than gold teeth.

So it seems natural that the design of the character would be handed to Depp as the actor that would portray Tonto. Here’s what I would call the first big mistake. The Jack Sparrow (“that’s Captain!”) that we see on the screen is NOT Depp’s unedited work. First of all, there were many more gold teeth capped by Depp’s dentist at his behest (including his front two teeth), and the Disney representatives made him take the number down to less than 5.

Also, Depp had a grand idea that nobody bought, which was to have the character have a deformed nose, which was supposed to be the result of a botched reattachement surgery after it was lopped off in a fight. The nose was supposed to have bad circulation, and thus be blue and swollen. Yes. Instead of a blue beard, this Captain would have a blue nose. Disney never even let the makeup artists do a mock up of the design, so it was happily left alone in Depp’s imagination.

On April 22, 2012, the character design and inspiration for Tonto was revealed to the public in an exclusive interview by Entertainment Weekly.

The world was wondering what he would look like, as his last few roles have obscured his ostensibly Native American complexion and cheekbones with gothic black and white makeup. So it seems he departed from this by…ripping his inspiration from a painting where the subject wears heavy black and white makeup that obscures his features. Also, the producers of the film decided to make Tonto and the rest of the Native Americans in the movie full blooded Comanche…which Depp exemplified by choosing a painting called: “I Am Crow”.


No, it gets better. Or worse. Hee hee. The painting isn’t of a Crow Native’s ceremonial facepaint, nor is it of any Native whatsoever. I’ll let the painter, Kirby Sattler, explain.

“The subjects are a variety of visual references and my imagination. I am not a historian, nor an ethnologist. Being of non-native blood, without personal history, it would be presumptuous to portray the subject I paint from any other view than as an artist with an innate interest in the world’s indigenous cultures. I purposely do not denote a tribal affiliation to the majority of my subjects, rather, I attempt to give the paintings an authentic appearance, provoke interest, satisfy my audience’s sensibilities of the subject without the constraints of having to adhere to historical accuracy.” Kirby Sattler

Yes. He likes to paint pictures of real historical people, without any of that actual history bogging down his mind. I want you to imagine for a moment, the idea of a popular artist painting a series of successful paintings of, say, historical traditional Chinese people, without ANY research whatsoever into what those people looked like. Imagine the hubris involved. I used China because there are 56 different cultural groups in a similar size landmass, but that doesn’t even come close to the 566 separate nations that exist in America today. Much less all of the tribes that have existed in the past. So this definitely violates C of Depps goals, as I don’t know a non native portrayal based on no particular tribe and having no real sense of history could be honoring to the people for whom this is their reality, their culture.
Anyway, back to Depp on seeing the painting:

“It just so happened Sattler had painted a bird flying directly behind the warrior’s head. It looked to me like it was sitting on top. I thought: Tonto’s got a bird on his head. It’s his spirit guide in a way. It’s dead to others, but it’s not dead to him. It’s very much alive.” 

I think that violates point A of what Depp was trying to accomplish, “Portray the character as a first class citizen” and possibly B, “portray him as a character worthy of respect”. People who are first class citizens are portrayed as level headed, rational and sane individuals. Now, don’t misunderstand me, having religious ideals or beliefs is not the problem here. He is saying that to Tonto, the bird isn’t just “spiritually alive”, its PHYSICALLY alive. This is exemplified in the final product of the movie, where he tries to feed the bird peanuts while it is sitting stuffed on top of his head.

Now, people who have delusions and problems connecting with reality are not less worthy of respect, but they are often perceived as deserving less respect, particularly when their situations are played up for laughs. Feeding his dead bird hat is played up for laughs. Also, add a point to your stereotype score sheet (SSS) for the assumption that Tonto would have a spirit guide (and another point that he would reveal this spirit guide to literally everyone).

“…The whole reason I wanted to play Tonto is to try to [mess] around with the stereotype of the American Indian that has been laid out through history, or the history of cinema at the very least — especially Tonto as the sidekick, The Lone Ranger’s assistant…As you’ll see, it’s most definitely not that.” Depp

So instead, he turned out to be the storyteller. Add another point to the score sheet. Oh, and I forgot, the stereotype that all “Indians” wear ceremonial facepaint every second of the damn day, that earns 500000 points.

I thought it couldn’t get any worse, but I’ll leave you with this final quote from Depp, whom I still very much admire as an actor, but he definitely needs to work on his delivery and examine his privilege.

 “I wanted him to be no joke. First of all, I wouldn’t f**k with someone with a dead bird on their head. Second of all, he’s got the f**king paint on his face, which scares me…I wanted to maybe give some hope to kids on the reservations. They’re living without running water and seeing problems with drugs and booze. But I wanted to be able to show these kids, ‘F**k that! You’re still warriors, man.'”

Oh Johnny…

Now that the movie has come out, if you want a point by point review of the movie itself, please please read this brilliant author take it down on a blog that fully explores Native Appropriations. She’s done better than I ever could and her review should go viral.