I personally think the depiction of Tonto in the new The Lone Ranger film is ill-advised. It’s misguided. Is this the role model Native American youth really need? A throwback to the era that gave us Mickey Rooney as the Japanese landlord Mr. Yunioshi in the otherwise brilliant Breakfast At Tiffany’s? A nostalgic nod to the likes of Burt Lancaster playing the Native American character Massai in Apache or Boris Karloff as the evil Asian character Fu Manchu in The Mask of Fu Manchu? The world has come a long way since then. As people we’ve grown, or we’re meant to have grown, and equality is not just a word but something we are meant to strive daily to achieve. We’ve learned hard and valuable lessons since those days and our filmmaking, our entertainment, our theatre should reflect that. It isn’t enough for Johnny Depp to claim 1/17 or 1/36 Cherokee blood, to accept Comanche names from elders, to give lip service to showing Native American kids they’re “still warriors”. He is still a white actor playing something he isn’t. And while there is an argument to be made that becoming something one isn’t is the very definition of acting, stepping into stereotyped shoes to play an ‘Indian’ character that Hollywood has been peddling for decades through white men in red face detracts from the very fight that actual Native Americans face in realizing success and in depicting their own history onscreen. (Go here for a fascinating interview with Sonny Skyhawk on this very issue.) There are many Native American actors who could have been cast as Tonto. Moreover, Disney was faced with the opportunity to rewrite The Lone Ranger and update it, to tell it not as a period piece with modern effects but to thoroughly update the narrative and thus present Tonto not as a stereotyped ‘Indian’ but as an equal partner to the Lone Ranger. The war paint makeup, the stuffed raven atop Tonto’s head, the accessories - everything is so specifically clichéd we could be watching an old John Wayne film. But we aren’t. And now this Tonto costume, complete with wig and headdress, is available for parents to purchase in the Disney store. Is this equality? Is this how far we’ve come? Where appropriating the race and culture of another human for dress-up is alright? Blackface is considered wildly racist - because it is - so why will we still accept versions of redface? Why must all Arabs now play terrorists? It isn’t just entertainment. It’s responsibility. And the truth of the matter is that every person, regardless of race or gender, has the capacity for villainy or wickedness. And every person, regardless of race or gender, has the equal capacity for heroism or selflessness. Let everyone tell their story fairly.
- Corinne Simpson