The Lone Ranger: Entertainment or Misrepresentation of Culture

A companion perspective to Corinne Simpson’s “The Lone Ranger: Examining Race and Racism”


From the outset, I have to admit that I have not seen the movie.  However, I am quite sure that the best parts of the movie are in the trailer. I’ve read other commentary for and against Disney’s adaptation of Tonto in The Lone Ranger. I also have to give Corinne Simpson, VampireNomad, a shout out for her well-written piece on The Lone Ranger.  So this is meant as a companion piece.

About a year ago, I heard Johnny Depp was going to be playing Tonto in The Lone Ranger. I have loved Depp since his 21 Jump Street days, as that show was a staple in my young life. I grew up in a suburb of Vancouver, BC and Depp was often spotted around town and my father liked to tour filming sites and in the later 1980s crews often let fans watch the filming process. It was totally cool to be a part of the film industry, even as an interloper, in those days.  I even wrote a fan letter to Depp telling him how much I loved his acting and his emotion that defined his character. Please forgive me, I was about 11 years old at the time.  I was twitter-pated and hormonal and… twitter-pated.  

Anyway, Depp has some phenomenal work in his repertoire and the audience could always count on him to transform into the character he played (fiction or non-fiction) and make you, yes make you, suspend your disbelief.  Some of Depp’s greatest work is the representation of real-life people in real-life situations like in Blow, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and Donnie Brasco.

So, when I heard that Depp was going to play a fictional Indigenous character from the 1930s I was skeptical. I instantly thought about how many great and I mean great Indigenous actors there are.  Then I thought about misrepresentation of Indigenous culture. Hollywood and Disney, especially, have a responsibility to show an honest representation of Indigenous culture in America. We can think back to how Pocahontas was received when Disney portrayed the Native American princess and her relationship with a European man and how some perceptions of Indigenous culture, my culture, are exploited for monetary gain.

We are more than our beads and our feathers

as many Indigenous scholars have professed.  So, what I do dislike is that Depp reinforces the stereotype of what it means, from the outside looking in, to be Indigenous. His make-up, costume, and the raven on his head are just that a misrepresentation of what it looks like to be Indigenous. I know, I know, I know, Depp is like 1/16 Cherokee. He says that he is and I can’t prove otherwise, so let’s just say he is. Let’s just say that he’s the most recognized Indigenous actor in today’s Hollywood. Does this change my perspective on his representation of Indigenous culture? Nope and I’ll tell you why…his Tonto is a caricature.

Depp chose the raven on his head because he saw a painting of Tonto with a raven flying in the background and it looked like the raven was on his head. Seriously…so in reality Indigenous people wouldn’t have walked around with a dead bird on their head. It would have been sacrilegious. Some Indigenous tribes revere the Raven and it is seen as their Creator. Having a dead raven on your head would be like having Jesus on your head. Even if we try to suspend our disbelief, it’s insensitive to some Indigenous people like myself that believe that Raven is a spiritual being. 

Ok now for the war paint. Are we to believe that Tonto is always at war and is wearing his paint for that reason? I believe this too is insensitive to Indigenous people. For sure, we had warriors, but we weren’t always at war and we didn’t always wear war paint. I would prefer that Depp didn’t cover his face in paint and could show an honest representation of Tonto. I know this movie is but a glimpse into what might amount to a couple of days in Tonto’s life, but it still seems to be an unrealistic representation of an Indigenous warrior.  

I think what bothers me most is the black and white paint that really literally evokes in me a black and white perspective of the issues faced by Indigenous people in North America. Without getting too political, I will say this: there is a lot of work to do in our society to equalize the playing field between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Many Indigenous peoples live far below the poverty line and have to leave their home communities to be successful; have lower education completion rates; and are at higher risk of diabetes and suicide. 

My question is this: Would Depp or any other actor “play” a Jewish or Asian caricature in a Hollywood blockbuster? Probably not. So why is it acceptable to “play” an Indigenous person in such a farcical way? The commodification of culture is pervasive in this film.

I don’t need to see The Lone Ranger to know that I’m not going to like it. I don’t even need to see it to know what stereotypes Depp will be portraying as his costume says it all.

The only thing missing from Depp’s portrayal of Tonto is a ship, the ocean, scurvy laden pirates and a lost treasure because we might as well be watching Jack Sparrow take on the bad guys in Pirates of the Caribbean.

There is one positive aspect to this stereotypical notion of the Indigenous warrior in caricature…it has people talking about Indigenous rights and the exploitation of Indigenous culture. If you want to watch some good movies about real life Indigenous heroes try Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or Windtalkers. If you want a good laugh and a funny portrayal of Indigenous life on the reservation you can try Smoke Signals. Other notable films are: Thunderheart and Dance Me Outside.

~ Jennifer Ward

RantingnRaven on twitter