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With or Without Johnny Depp as Tonto, ‘The Lone Ranger’ Was Too Racist to Reboot

The important question, when you get right down to it, is why the hell they wanted to make The Lone Ranger in the first place. It’s not like anyone was clamoring for it, or that there’s some kind of built-in brand recognition. This is a character still best known from a ‘30s radio serial and a ‘50s television show (his most recent big-screen incarnation, 1981’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger, was a notorious boondoggle), so the audience that might be interested is, it seems, just about the right age to have no desire whatsoever to sit through a two-and-a-half-hour Johnny Depp summer blockbuster. It’s not like rebooting the Superman or Spider-Man franchise, perpetual favorites of lucrative young moviegoers and fanboys. But more than that, those characters don’t come with any of the loaded racial iconography that a 2013 film adaptation must contend with. The fumbling of that issue isn’t the sole undoing of Gore Verbinski’s new movie — there’s plenty of other flaws — but it sure doesn’t help.

Some background, for those of you (that is, most of you) who weren’t around for the Lone Ranger’s original outings: the stern Western crime-fighter’s trusty sidekick on his adventures is Tonto, a Native American tracker who chants, speaks in broken English, and basically encapsulates the “Indian” stereotypes of the American Western from the invention of film until, oh, the 1970s. The character of Tonto — particularly the television version, played by Jay Silverheels — became the default image of the Native American in the eyes of much of the country, his speech and mannerisms a go-to boilerplate whose influence still holds.

So why bother? Why go to the trouble of opening up that can of worms? Perusing the film’s production history, it would seem that there’s one answer: because Johnny Depp wanted to. Director Verbinski reportedly suggested the role to Depp while making one of their Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and Depp locked on it — in spite of the fact that he’s not Native American, and “red-face” is kinda frowned upon these days. (Depp has made vague claims of Native American heritage — “I was told I was Cherokee as a kid. I was told I was Creek as a kid and Chickasaw” — but activists note he’s never had his claims verified.)

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In interviews, Depp has insisted he sees his characterization as an attempt to “right the wrongs of the past” or “an opportunity for me to salute Native Americans.” But the trouble with the character, as it’s played in the film, is that it’s so totally muddled. Depp is undoubtedly the star of the film, and (title notwithstanding), Tonto is the focal character: he’s first glimpsed in elderly form, as a literal museum exhibit, branded “The Noble Savage” before coming to life to tell his story to a little boy in a Lone Ranger mask (and yes, this framing device is as stupid as it sounds, an ill-conceived wraparound that merely suggests the screenwriters rented Little Big Man somewhere along the line).

Tonto, as played by Depp, is a collection of mannerisms and affectations, but not a character. He maintains the most culturally damaging element of the role, his definite article-free dialogue, with lines like, “Do not touch rock. Rock cursed.” But to offset that, he’s made the brains of the duo, the brilliant tracker and wise man, in order to do all that saluting and wrong-righting that Depp envisioned. But this is also a Disney summer tentpole flick, aimed to entertain, so laughs must be garnered by also making Tonto a standard-issue Depp buffoon in the Captain Jack mold — or, more accurately, in the style of Depp fave Buster Keaton, whose comic Western The General is all but remade in the film’s climax.

So, which is he? A broad stereotype, a noble shaman, or a comic charlatan? Depp doesn’t know; he’s a gifted performer but an undisciplined one, and Verbinski isn’t much for laser focus either, as the 149-minute running time makes clear. This is an actor who Disney is paying, as he has said, “stupid money,” so when he sees a white artist’s painting of an imaginary Native American and decides that’s how Tonto’s gonna look, well then, that’s how Tonto looks.

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But the problem with The Lone Ranger — aside from it being lumbering, overlong, unfunny, and frequently dull — is that its script is no less confused about how to represent Native Americans than Depp is. They’ll dramatize a violent, terrifying Comanche raid, and exploit all of that loaded imagery, as long as it turns out that the “Indians” were actually masquerading white thugs. They’ll create a Tonto who “trades” feathers for the rings off a dead man’s fingers, as long as he’s given a sentimental backstory. And then they’ll send out their marquee leading man to explain how he’s pretending to be a Native American to “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, ‘Fuck that! You’re still warriors, man.’”

But the question remains: why bother? The fact is, sometimes time passes, and cultural norms change, and certain characters or tropes or texts just become too antiquated. The Lone Ranger left this viewer with a feeling weirdly similar to the aftertaste of Michael Radford’s 2004 Merchant of Venice (the Pacino one): like maybe we just don’t need to tell this story anymore, since it — though a classic, and an important piece of literature, etc. etc. — is deeply, unavoidably, problematically anti-Semitic. And the makers of The Lone Ranger find themselves in a similar conundrum, left twisting their narrative into pretzels in order to balance out the inexorably stereotypical nature of what is now its primary character. You can’t help but wonder why Depp and Verbinski didn’t just say to hell with this mythology, and start fresh with the Butch-and-Sundance-runaway-train-Western they so clearly wanted to do instead.

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