Johnny Depp as Tonto – Why is a white guy playing a Native American in new ‘Lone Ranger’ movie

Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer co-star in 'Lone Ranger'
Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer co-star in ‘Lone Ranger’

Johnny Depp playing Tonto – what is this, 1955?

For a character that has traditionally been portrayed in either insulting or cliché fashion, it’s just a little weird that the producers have chosen to go this route.

As likable and entertaining as Depp is – and by his own insistence is part Cherokee – having a white guy play Tonto seems a bit odd in this day and age.

I guess I just figured we were beyond the days when people of color weren’t allowed to play minority roles. Whites often played Indians (for example, Burt Lancaster in Apache or Rock Hudson in Winchester ’73) or Mexicans (for example, Paul Newman in The Outrage or Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil) in Hollywood since the dawn of the film industry.

John Wayne played Genghis Khan for crying out loud!

Somehow I imagine there are a host of Native American actors who would have jumped at the chance to play Tonto.

I give Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney credit, they’re taking a big chance on a western, a genre that’s been considered all but dead for more than a decade. But why not just let the Lone Ranger be played by the high profile actor?

Original Lone Ranger (Clayton Moore Jr) and Tonto (Jay Silverheels)
Original Lone Ranger (Clayton Moore Jr) and Tonto (Jay Silverheels)

Green Hornet handled a similar situation better. Similar to Tonto, Kato was the marginalized non-white sidekick portrayed in stereotypes. In the 2011 film, he was treated respectfully. The filmmakers went so far as to make him better than the hero in many ways.

Tonto, however, is the epitome of racist portrayals of Native Americans by the movie industry. The sidekick who always gets in trouble and needs to be rescued by the Lone Ranger like a damsel in distress. While later interpretations of the character were more respectful (for example, Michael Horse in 1981’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger), the perception of the role has historically remained the same.

Perhaps the film will explain away Depp’s whiteness. He’s the son of a settler raised by Indians, who knows. I suppose that would be a fairly easy way to address it. Or maybe they’re just banking on the notion that today’s movie-going generation probably has no idea who Tonto is… and don’t care.

However, it just seems odd that in 2012 Hollywood would reinforce the perception of its own racial prejudices by taking an iconic, ethnic character and give it to a white actor. Especially one that has been a symbol of racist stereotypes for decades.

About Michael Sheridan 219 Articles
Michael Sheridan has written, directed and produced more than a dozen short films under the banner of Maynard Films, and has worked as a writer for more than a decade for websites, magazines and newspapers.

1 Comment on Johnny Depp as Tonto – Why is a white guy playing a Native American in new ‘Lone Ranger’ movie

  1. Jerry Bruckheimer has accomplished more than most of us can every dream of. He can now add yet another credential to his name…Racist!

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