The latest big screen version of The Lone Ranger has descended upon the movie going public in the year 2013 A.D (or B.C.E). Regardless of what abbreviation you assign to the year, it’s the 21st Century. The Lone Ranger was a television serial in the late 1940′s and early 1950′s that spawned two films during that time frame. The series and films starred Clayton Moore as the iconic masked lawman and Jay Silverheels as his riding buddy and ally Tonto. Together on their trusted steeds Silver and Scout respectively, they righted wrongs and brought the guilty to justice in the American Old West.
Jay Silverheels was of Native American ancestry. In the new version, the character Tonto (that he made famous and could not escape from) is played by Johnny Depp, a white actor. Why is this? The reasons are varied and complex.
Depp is an A-list actor that has wanted to bring another Lone Ranger version to the screen for some time now. Word has it that it was his wish to play the Tonto character. A lot of people said that there was no way the film would get such a huge budget ($250mil), let alone get made if a big name actor wasn’t attached to the project. Moviegoers won’t see a film like this if no-names are in it, I guess.
To deflect some of the criticism of having a non-Native actor in this role, Depp himself has stated that he “probably” has some Cherokee or Creek blood from way back, since he is from Kentucky. That is to be disputed.
In another, maybe not so curious move, Walt Disney Studios held a world premiere at Disney California Adventure Park complete with red carpet, the film’s stars and filmmakers in attendance, along with other Hollywood celebrities. Silver even made an appearance. To commemorate the occasion, all the ticket sales from the event (at $1,000 a clip) went to the American Indian College Fund. In addition, a Kawasaki Ninja(?) motorcycle was being auctioned off at a later date with proceeds going towards the fund.
I spoke with the American Indian College Fund president, Cheryl Crazy Bull about her thoughts on all of this hoopla. It should be noted that the fund does a lot of good work to help kids go to college by providing scholarships as best they can. Ms. Crazy Bull told me that they sold roughly 156 tickets to the event, which breaks down to $156k. Disney Studios also had a matching grant of $100k. If you throw in the motorcycle, then upwards of $300k was raised that evening. She told me the average cost of attending one of the tribal colleges is about $13k/year. Doing the math, the proceeds amount to putting 6 kids through college. Remember, the budget for this film was $250 million. Venture to guess what the box office will be? Imagine if Mr. Depp had donated a large percentage of his salary to the fund, since he is “Cherokee or Creek”. Give back to the people! Or if the studios gave a percentage of the box office take. Wouldn’t that be something?
Instead of trying to “buy off” the community, how about having a Native American actor maybe not play Tonto (although that should have been a no-brainer), but play the Lone Ranger? Someone like Adam Beach, Tokala Clifford, or Zahn McClarnon would be perfect. If there are sequels, that is something Hollywood should strongly consider. But to have a film starring two white actors (Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger) when one of the characters clearly is not, smacks of whitewashing. The Screen Actors Guild should have come out against this. The NAACP should have come out against this along with Native American groups. If they did, they should have been more vocal.
Another interesting fact, the look of Tonto in this film is inspired by the painting at left entitled “I Am Crow”… by a white artist.
Kevin Robinson is the executive producer of Medium Rare (www.mediumraretv.org), a site that focuses on the work of women and people of color in film, television, and video games. Let me know if you need anything else.