I recently saw a trailer for the new Disney release of The Lone Ranger which is an iconic radio show that transitioned to television. After watching the trailer and realizing that Johnny Depp was playing Tonto, the infamous Native American sidekick played by a WHITE man, I recalled the first film we watched in class Reel Injun. The narrater and documentary focal character examined the portral of Native Americans in film. He elaborated on how characters were distilled down to stereotypes played by white men and women. This lead to the thought of, “in this globalized era is it that hard to find a Native American actor? I’m not a casting agent, however I’m sure that there are authentic, Native American actors out there.”
It was a short lived thought. Since I was fairly unfamiliar with the radio or television shows I did some brief research online, and watched a few clips on YouTube. I soon realized that no self respecting Native American actor, or really any actor that reason, would play as Tonto.
Firstly the name; Tonto. In Spanish tonto is “silly” or “stupid” depending (Van Hise). The article I read later said that Tonto in the local Native American language meant “Wild One”. It seems that the name’s Spanish translation was an accident, however it was not changed like it was for Spanish audiences. As a creator, feeling the need to change the name for one group of people means you should change it for all groups of people regardless of what YOU wanted. The nameshould have been changed is not the most upsetting part of the modern remake of a “western classic”, but rather the use of language in the film.
I cannot recall the term for the grunt-like way that Native Americans’ English is in films, but the single syllable, short, fast and inelegant English that is infamous is still present in the modern remake. Depp, a modern actor in a modern era, uses this trope to approach the English in this film. Come on Hollywood! Even Jay Silverheels, the original actor openly protested the way in which Tonto was portrayed as stupid and uncivilized through his use of English. This raises the question of authenticity and whether racism is acceptable if one is trying to represent a previous image of anyone. I think no. It is 2013, get real.
Van Hise, James, Who was that Masked Man? The Story of the Lone Ranger” (Pioneer Books, Las Vegas, 1990), pp. 16-18.