Scene4 Magazine — International Magazine of Arts and Media
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december 2008


by Carole Quattro Levine

Native moms don't want their sons to be Tonto.

A demeaning caricature of what mainstream America thinks of "Indians"—obedient, inarticulate and always subservient to the more clever white man.  Tonto is Native America's Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Stepin Fetchit; a non-threatening, real-life cartoon.

You would reasonably assume that Hollywood, that bastion of all things socially, politically and culturally correct would bury his image in the celluloid graveyard. Yes, you would assume that, but you would be so wrong. Tonto keeps coming back to life on the big and little screen; in each reincarnation he gets better looking, more spiritual (translation: new age) and smarter.  

Gee, thanks…I guess.  But to paraphrase our incoming president, isn't that a bit like putting lipstick on a pig?

Sure is. Nevertheless, there's a new pig in town, and he's looking damn hot in his lipstick.

Jerry Bruckheimer, the mega producer of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, CSI, Top Gun and Flashdance, is undertaking a remake of The Lone Ranger.  Whereas the actor taking on the title role has yet to be confirmed, the role of our fave Native flunkey is being played by Johnny Depp.

Johnny Depp. As Tonto.

Think about it—arguably America's most versatile actor who claims a smackrel of Cherokee and Navajo lineage assuming the part of Native America's most controversial film character. The buzz in the mainstream media is ecstatic; the buzz in the Native press has been a mix of muted enthusiasm and derisiveness. Tonto, many implore, that's bad enough…but having a white dude play him? That's even worse.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe, just maybe the powerhouse team of Bruckheimer and Depp will redefine Tonto in the public psyche the same way Jack Sparrow redefined pirates—witty and drop-dead sexy, a  bona fide STAR. If they do, the image of Native America's Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Stepin Fetchit will never be the same.

Fair argument, but why didn't Bruckheimer pick from the flourishing crop of talented Native actors? Seriously, does anyone believe that a non-black actor would ever be chosen to portray an African American icon?

Indeed, the idea that well into the 21st century Hollywood is casting "red-face" is disconcerting, yet, let's be honest, there isn't an actor of any ethnic background who could add the savoir faire to the patently uncool Tonto that Depp can.  And lest we forget, Depp is of Native blood and has always proudly acknowledged this.

So I'm breaking the cardinal rule and taking a leap of faith on this one and trust that the A-team will do right and not create a big-budget Indian minstrel show. It's a gamble, but think about it…

Johnny Depp. As Tonto. 

No, I don't much like Tonto, but I sure in hell like Johnny Depp. And if anyone can drop-kick this sorry stereotype into the ashcan of history it will be the team of Depp and Bruckheimer.  

Don't let me down, dudes. A lot of Native moms and their sons will be watching.


©2008 Carole Quattro Levine
©2008 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine — Carole Quattro Levine
Carole Quattro Levine is the editor of NativeVue Film and Media, an online magazine emphasizing "real-time" dialogue about films.  
She is also a writer for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


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