Even if Johnny Depp hadn’t made some rather boneheaded comments about his intentions in bringing back Tonto, the American Indian sidekick in Gore Verbinski’s Lone Ranger reboot, the resurrection would have faced scrutiny for reinforcing ethnic stereotypes—and it did. But those comments certainly didn’t help. “I wanted to maybe give some hope to kids on the reservations,” he told Rolling Stone. “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.’ ” Ugh.
Then there was his noble attempt to seek approval from the Comanche Nation, and co-star Armie Hammer’s insistence that the American Indians in the cast and crew were “thrilled” and “loved” the experience. (The “white people are the ones who have the problem,” apparently.) All in all, for anyone who may be sensitive to—or at the very least culturally aware of—the poor history of minority representation in Hollywood, the promotional buzz surrounding this film can cause sincere dread about what awaits us this time.
But is Depp’s Tonto as racist a caricature as the stars’ uneasy sound-bites have made it seem?
Not quite. To the filmmakers’ credit, what we get on screen is more complicated than that. To start, The Lone Ranger does its best not to marginalize Tonto: For the majority of the story, this is his film, not the Lone Ranger’s. Depp and the screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio have gone to great lengths to reverse some of the antiquated tropes found in many classic westerns. But they were also obligated to remain at least somewhat faithful to their original source—and sometimes they end up reinforcing the stereotypes they’re trying to subvert.
The most troubling aspect of the film is its framing device. The film begins with, ends on, and occasionally returns to a San Francisco carnival in 1933 (the same year that the original radio series created by Fran Striker premiered). A young white boy dressed as the masked hero wanders into a museum exhibition and lands in front of a display called “The Noble Savage in his Natural Habitat.” This ancient specimen turns out to be an elderly Tonto, and he comes to life in order to tell the boy the legend of John Reid, the Lone Ranger. He speaks in incomplete sentences and repeatedly “feeds” a dead bird that sits atop his head; his presence is accompanied by the sound of pounding drums and rattles, a tired cinematic cue to invoke “Native American” or “tribal.” The filmmakers, it appears, are counting on us to recognize that they know these are terrible stereotypes that a museum of that period would employ, and that they themselves are not presenting them uncritically. But later another young boy, this time John Reid’s nephew, watches Tonto, locked in a jail cell, perform a mysterious chant; his eyes suddenly snap in his direction and the boy runs away, frightened. It feels awfully similar to what we saw at the beginning of the movie.
Is Tonto crazy? Does he possess a heightened, “natural” sense of this world and perhaps the beyond? The screenwriters attempt to address the mysticism more or less inherent in the character by giving him a complicated origin story. Whereas in the original series his tribe was almost never identified, Depp’s Tonto is explicitly a Comanche who has a rather serious guilt complex. When he was a kid, he naively told two white men where they could find his tribe’s primary source for silver, in exchange for a pocket watch. As a result, all of his family and friends were slaughtered.
We learn this story through Chief Big Bear (Saginaw Grant), when the Lone Ranger meets with the Comanche in an attempt to prevent war between the tribe and the white settlers. This guilt, the Chief suggests, probably explains why Tonto’s “mind is broken” and why he has isolated himself from the rest of the tribe. By painting Tonto as an outcast—unlike the sidekick, the Chief can easily converse in “good” English—the film aligns Tonto with his fellow solitary, the Lone Ranger. Tonto still remains an incredibly “faithful sidekick,” though.
Otherwise, Tonto harbors serious ill will towards white oppression: He seeks to avenge the loss of his family and ancestors by killing the movie’s villain, Butch Cavendish, a murderous hillbilly who also killed the Lone Ranger’s brother (and then ate his heart). And yet because he considers John Reid to be his “spirit animal,” sent to guide him on the path through life, he chooses to help him escape Cavendish’s clutches rather than assist the Chief and his tribe in taking down the white men once and for all.
On more than one occasion, Reid refuses to kill Cavendish when he has the chance, wishing instead that he will face the “full extent of the law.” Tonto, on the other hand, fully understands the way things work in the wild west—and he becomes frustrated each time John assumes this noble posture. The script takes a risk in addressing the line between savagery (historically attributed to Native Americans) and civilized morals (commonly attributed to whites). The Lone Ranger believes that “an eye for an eye” is a primitive approach to justice—even as he continuously fails to vanquish his enemies in any other way. “This is not justice,” he chides Tonto, when refusing to shoot Cavendish for the second time. “I am not a savage.” When Tonto responds by deeming him a “white coward,” the modern-day audience is meant to side with him rather than the Lone Ranger.
But the filmmakers ultimately can’t resist making the white man the hero of this story. Even though Tonto is the driving force for the majority of the movie, the Lone Ranger gets the pomp and circumstance from both the innocent citizens of Colby, Texas, and the film’s creators, in the end. This is to be expected: It is, after all, called The Lone Ranger. But when the Lone Ranger finally fulfills the role he was “destined” to play, it comes seemingly out of nowhere, nearly two hours into the 149-minute film, and feels completely unearned. Tonto, for all of the filmmakers’ evident intentions, becomes by the finale a less egregious rendition of Bagger Vance and countless other “mythical” minority characters, devoted to building up the courage and strength of the heroic white leads.
On a scale of 1 to The Searchers, The Lone Ranger rates at about a 4 in terms of its depiction of American Indians. Is it blatantly racist and shameful? No. But the filmmakers don’t succeed in their effort to have it both ways. Depp’s attempt to be a “warrior” role model to all the American Indian kids lucky enough to watch him save the day fails—and for the simple reason that the original material is too entrenched in an essentially racist ideology. While the attempt to humanize Tonto—to turn him into a complicated, fully realized, respectable character—seems noble, and maybe even a step above what we normally expect from Hollywood, the movie doesn’t make a strong enough case for bringing him back from the past in the first place. The spirits of certain cultural figures are probably better left alone.