"This train is not going to stop, John!"
Those were the words spoken to Armie Hammer's character John Reid in Johnny Depp's new The Lone Ranger movie.
At its core, this movie is a re-telling of a 1933 radio show about Hollywood's inventing Native Americans, historical confusion, and most of all this movie is about "entertainment!"
The new The Lone Ranger movie delivers on all of these promises in its contemporary tale of taming of the West. True to the genre's form, it is also a white man's debate between good and bad values and American morality.
One white man, Latham Cole (played by Tom Wilkinson), manifests his destiny by gaining all he can through the riches of the railroad (we call him "capitalism-at-all-expense tribe"), and the other white man, John Reid (played by Armie Hammer), believes in justice and "his" moral-truth (we call him the "righteous-and-overbearing tribe").
But wait, I thought this new The Lone Ranger movie was Johnny Depp's effort to show Tonto in a different light? Well, truth be told, yes, Depp's Tonto is seen in a different light, in that evidently the fictitious Tonto was much more important to the story of righteous manifest destiny than we previously knew. Yet, it is still a Native (I use the interpretation of the word "Native" very loosely) character as a secondary figure to the "white" debate over Manifest Destiny and their ideas about good and bad as they seek the taming of the West.
"This train is not going to stop..." might have been better served as a line Depp's Tonto character received, "This train is not going to stop, Depp!"
But, maybe Johnny Depp knows this better than anyone because as a Hollywood "powerhouse," Depp knows Hollywood's long and non-regulated telling of Native Americans misrepresented culture and history in movies. In Hollywood's telling of Native America, "facts" are never important and don't need to be as long as we are entertained. Native Americans in Hollywood movies have always served as a centerpiece to be molded by the "right," but mostly the "left," for the filmmaker or the studio or the financiers' personal American ideals -- and the new The Lone Ranger is no different.
Since the beginning of the moving image, Hollywood has created and appropriated its very own image of Native America that was always made by non-Native Americans for their own political point of view towards the masses.
"Next question, please?"
Well, how do Native people feel about the new The Lone Ranger, you ask?
Johnny Depp's "Tonto" resembles nothing that is Native American in reality, not his talk, not his crow on his head, not his face paint or his Potawatomi language "Kemosabe," spoken by a fictional Comanche character. Depp's Tonto is an entertaining farce. It's an idea audiences world-wide own through Hollywood invention and appropriation. The Lone Ranger's storyline, its characters and its ideas are not based in historical fact or related to Native America or its contemporary progressive people. Period.
Today, there needs to be a new category for the appropriation of Native American images by Hollywood and by non-Natives that try and portray that idea for mass consumption. I know, let's call it "entertainment."
And, I have to say, there are a lot of Native people who seem irate over Depp's portrayal of "red face." I was recently asked, "Is Depp's Tonto offensive to Native people?" I thought to myself, two things. One, if a Native person is offended by this Tonto character they must not recognize how unbelievable this character is, and two, if Native people think this is their opportunity to change other people's minds regarding negative representations of Native characterization I would say, "Go see another movie!!"
This Hollywood train is not going to stop. The alternative to this paradigm is that there are more young and generational Native American artists, musicians and filmmakers than ever before making their own work to proactively tell a different story (check out Sundance Institute's Native Labs or the National Museum of the American Indian's film and video center). Instead of worrying about a fictional Native American character invented by non-Native writers, I suggest we as Native people continue our art, our music, our films and our cultures as is happening and "Get over Tonto. He's not real!!"
After all, it's still an entertaining movie!
Chris Eyre is a film and TV director and producer. He is currently chair of The Film School at Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, N.M.
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