A little while ago I tweeted the cover of Rolling Stone magazine featuring Johnny Depp in Tonto costume and make and words like "Johnny Depp strikes a "I can crap out Native American stereotypes as easy as this" kind of thing. It was funny enough, but it was mostly bitter.
I had seen the commercials for Lone Ranger . I thought the movie looked horrible. In the sense that every movie looks horrible these days. Things are blowing up and flying at you from this future or that past and everything in between. All in stimuli crushing 3D.
Lone Ranger seemed to be another in a line of Depp Films that for me includes all the Pirate sequels, Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows that left me cold. Yet, the box office success for these films over than Shadows have been astronomical.
I was trying to remember the last time I had enjoyed Depp in a performance. It would have to be Sleepy Hollow, if you don't include Rango. He is one of the great actors of this generation and I no longer anticipated any of his work for a very long time. I watched some of all of his recent films and it is not for me.
Then I read about Depp getting paid $65 million for some of these films, maybe more and it just seems crazy. I thought if Young Depp could travel to the future would he kill Old Depp. I asked myself the same question a few years back when I was working in Ottawa, I didn't work out well for me.
Then there was The Tonto thing. The talking Tonto thing. The monotone monosyllabic Tonto thing. Where you got the feeling that the Lone Ranger considered Tonto only slightly more intelligent than Silver.
What is Tonto? It is not a Native American trope although we like to see it that way. He is the stereotypical other who helps the White protagonist for no other reason other than he is White. A dynamic which appears over and over again in American and Canadian popular culture.
He is also Native American and through a history that began with a radio show and continued onto movie newsreels, comic books, television and film Tonto has become the single most enduring fictional Native American character in history.
Why would Depp who claims Native American ancestry, who directed a Native American themed film "The Brave" in his debut as a director and who starred in one of the most critically acclaimed films of recent years with a Native American theme "Dead Man".
Why in the world would Depp take on the most stereotypical Native American characters in all of popular culture? Why? Why? Oh, yeah. $65 million dollars.
So, I wasn't going to see it. I was going to mock the movie in advance and that was it. But, I did see it only with minor protests. My family was visiting from out West we had planned to see a comedy but all films were sold out. It was cheap Tuesday. The only film available was Lone Ranger. All right, I will go. And I promise not to complain loudly, yell at the screen or laugh inappropriately as dramatic scenes that are not working.
The film reset the Tonto character as someone who is outside of his own world. He doesn't' have a tribe. He grew up alone obsessed by both vengeance and guilt. He isn't a Sidekick. He is someone into whose story the Lone Ranger enters.
Depp may be mugging to the camera and eating scenery like the shark in Jaws but in the Native American history of the clown and the Trickster it is absolutely what the performance requires. If you relate it only to the Blackface mimicry of bug eyes and big grins you aren't reaching far enough back in the performance history of North America.
When an actor goes over the top it is often labelled a Vanity performance and when you take producer credit the whole film become a Vanity Project. There is are scenes early in the film that blow that notion up and ones that caused a bigger audience response that any of the special effects.
Armie Hammer the actor playing the Lone Ranger cuts an imposing 6' 4". Depp is not Hollywood short, but he is regular people short. Those scenes where he is walking side by side with Hammer sometimes with the camera shooting them from above. He looks really, really short. In one scene Tonto is referred to a "crazy little Indian".
This is not how it is done in Hollywood. No one calls Tom Cruise short.
Height has always been the greatest special effect ever created by Hollywood. It's like he's saying how can you trust Hollywood to tell you history when the whole thing is smoke a mirrors.
When the film starts to drift into Native American fantasy and a character is revealed to be a cannibalistic Windigo you wonder once again if the stereotypes of old Hollywood are creeping into the film. Spoiler alert, it turns out that some people are just evil.
It is all splash and entertainment and it is all of little consequence. Yet, the speech that matters, the most heartfelt oration of the movie comes from Chief Ten Bears, played by Saginaw Grant. There is no Tonto speak from the Native American actors. It is the most real thing in the film and that's the only thing that matters.