The Battle For A More Conscientious Tonto


The portrayal of Native Americans in film has been problematic for a long time. Going back as far as John Ford’s 1939 western Stagecoach, the Native American has been stereotyped, truncated and even vilified by traditional Hollywood cinema. The newest movie to add to this discussion is Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, which opened in theaters this week. The Lone Ranger is an adaptation of a 1940s television series that was itself a followup to a radio drama serial of the same name. In Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, Johnny Depp stars as Tonto, a Comanche Indian who helps John Reid, played by Armie Hammer, on his journey of becoming the Lone Ranger.

The character of Tonto in previous iterations has been criticized over the years as being essentially a talking prop, merely a sidekick for the Lone Ranger, barely able to speak English and never a driving force of the television show or radio dramas. Verbinski, Disney and Depp have made a lot of efforts during the production of The Lone Ranger to emphasize that they wanted to portray a different kind of Tonto — from having Comanche advisers on set to receiving the permission of the Navajo Nation to film on their lands to explicitly stating that they wanted to right the past wrongs of Native Americans in cinema — but does The Lone Ranger actually live up to any of that? Does Depp’s Tonto actually right the film industry’s previous wrongs?


2013’s The Lone Ranger marks the first time in history that an actor playing Tonto has received first billing. It’s also the first time the character has been fleshed out in any sort of sense. In The Lone Ranger, we see an Indian who from an authenticity standpoint is initially infuriating. He is described as Comanche but looks and acts completely on his own, not adhering to actual Comanche practices and dress.

For instance, the raven Tonto wears on his head is not a real practice of the Comanche people or any historical Native American group for that matter. The idea of the raven hat began, according to Depp, with a painting by artist Kirby Sattler which features a Native American man with a raven directly behind his head and the same facepaint as Depp wears as Tonto in the movie. The character in the painting is fictional and so is Depp’s Tonto. However, the movie works very diligently to create a detailed back story for Tonto, explaining him and really creating a singular mythology of his own. Note: spoilers ahead!


It is eventually revealed that Tonto is actually an orphan — his family band was murdered by white men after the young Tonto showed the men where a large silver mine was located near their camp. When this back story is explained to Reid, the Comanche leader telling him the story explicitly says that Tonto is an outsider, has probably lost his mind due to this past traumatic event, and that some of the spiritual jargon that Tonto has been telling Reid is made up. This puts Depp’s Tonto in an interesting place.

Depp’s Tonto is inauthentic, period. But the movie frames his character in a way where it acknowledges that he is inauthentic and gives a relatively reasonable explanation for it, making it all somehow acceptable — swallowable?  — that Tonto would act the way he does and have his own unique character traits, such as mimicking feeding his raven hat over and over again.


The rest of the Native Americans portrayed in The Lone Ranger are more like the depictions of Native people we’re used to seeing from Hollywood. They are one-dimensional side characters and are on the screen about as much as the Black house workers or the Asian silver miners. Despite having a brief moment where the Comanche leader and his gang break out into laughter at Reid’s character, a rare humanizing moment, the Comanche people are depicted as a solemn, noble and doomed group of Indians who are eventually slaughtered by the misguided United States Army. The particular battle scene between the Comanche and the army is also treated very typically; the Comanche group drives its attack down a hill headfirst towards a single firing line and machine gun, even though they snuck up on the army and had the upper ground, and in reality the Comanche were extremely adept at warfare.

This sort of easy, abbreviated and recognizable depiction of Native Americans is what we usually see from Hollywood throughout film history, and at large, the Comanche people in The Lone Ranger are really not breaking out of that. However, in Tonto we have Verbinski’s attempt at a breath of fresh air.


Even though Depp’s Tonto is recognized as acting on his own and not trying to fit within a particular real Native American tradition, this does not make it un-critiqueable. Some people may have a problem with the idea of Johnny Depp, a man of no real Native American ancestry playing a character that is supposed to be Native American, but unfortunately this sort of ethnic role playing happens all the time in the film industry.

This issue goes back to the early era of filmmaking, where, for example, D.W. Griffith cast a squinting white actor as “the Yellow Man” in the 1919 film Broken Blossoms. More recently, Memoirs of a Geisha caused a controversy because it employed actresses that were Chinese to play roles that expressed traditional Japanese life. Both actresses Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi were called traitors by both Chinese and Japanese people, and the film itself came under fire for being insensitive. Critically though, the film was very well-received and both Li and Ziyi’s performances were praised.


This sort of ethnic fudging does not necessarily ruin a movie, and from an acting standpoint ideally a movie should have the actors best suited for a role in every sense, but what makes The Lone Ranger problematic is that it becomes another movie made by people outside of a cultural group about a cultural group. Depp’s Tonto may have a plot that allows some excusability, and his character may be a slight step forward in terms of a well-rounded Native American character in a Hollywood action flick, but The Lone Ranger is yet another movie with a colonial viewpoint. It’s another flashy movie made for American popular culture with a colonial gaze on the Native American and on our shared history. 

And ultimately, that’s my problem with The Lone Ranger‘s depiction of Tonto and of Native Americans. In Tonto, Depp was able to craft the kind of superficial shaman-like character he seems like he’s always wanted to play, but his character isn’t solving any issues facing the treatment and representation of Native Americans in Hollywood. In fact, in many ways it reinforces them. Depp’s Tonto may be well-intentioned, but it fails to portray Native Americans as anything more than a vanishing people infused with magical properties, endlessly romanticized and fictionalized by those who consistently undermine them.

But, you know, at least they gave him screen time.

[For more on Native Americans in film, I recommend the documentary Reel Injun by filmmaker Neil Diamond, as well as following the writings of Ojibway film critic Jesse Wente.]