Johnny Depp as “Greasepaint Injun”?

by Glenn Lovell

There’s much gnashing of teeth in our house during Cleveland Indians games. It’s not that we can’t stand the team, it’s their longtime logo, that deeply offensive caricature of a Native American “Injun” ‒ red face, stupid grin, prominent, beak-like nose.

How it is possible in the age of political correctness that a major league team could get away with something so insulting?

Answer: In the 21st Century, the PC police have still not gotten around to our country’s indigenous people. Native Americans remain the one minority it’s still OK to ridicule. Imagine the hue and cry if a team wore a WorlJohnnyDeppTontod War 2 caricature of a Japanese (buckteeth, thick glasses, slit eyes) or an African-American on its jersey?

Need more proof of our culture’s lingering insensitivity to American Indians?

Look no further than Disney’s “The Lone Ranger,” due out this summer. If I’m not mistaken that’s Johnny Depp in the old Jay Silverheels role of Tonto, the Indian who saves a Texas lawman and then rides into battle with the masked man. Last I checked Depp was a Caucasian, as in lily W-H-I-T-E. Who over at Central Casting could have thought it was a good idea to have Depp slather himself in bronze body makeup to play an Indian? His Tonto ‒ under long black wig, artfully applied war paint, stuffed-crow bonnet ‒ looks like Captain Jack Sparrow crossed with Conan the Barbarian. (Not surprisingly, Depp’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” makeup man had a hand in the preposterous get-up.)

Depp’s justification? As a kid, he hated the way Tonto was portrayed in the Lone Ranger TV series and, since there’s a drop or two of Indian blood coursing through his veins ‒ “maybe Cherokee or some Creek” ‒ he’s taken it upon himself to right this wrong. No mention of the millions he’s being paid or a monstrously oversized star ego.

Of course, Depp is only the latest in a long line of “Hollywood Indians.” (See “Dances with Deception” on this site.) Other white actors who claim Indian heritage to justify taking Indian roles include Val Kilmer, Lou Diamond Phillips, Fred Ward and Frederic Forrest.

Reminds me of an interview I did with Doris Leader Charge, the Lakota Sioux teacher who appeared in “Dances with Wolves.”

“White actors playing Indians are all Cherokee,” she laughed. “That must have been one huge tribe.”

The $200 million-plus “Lone Ranger”  is hardly the first Disney film to feature whites as Indians. The practice goes back to the studio’s “Tonka” (1958), starring Sal Mineo as a Sioux warrior, and includes “Running Brave” (1983), with Robby Benson as Sioux Olympian Billy Mills.

“If asked to do it again, I would in a second,” said Benson when I asked him about whites playing Indian roles. “It’s what an actor does, become something they’re not. If you’re worried about the political fallout every time you take a role, you might as well hang it up.”

Make yourself heard if you’re offended by this ongoing practice — by boycotting the film.

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5 Responses to “Johnny Depp as “Greasepaint Injun”?”

  1. Amani Hamed Says:

    The fact that Johnny Depp is “Cherokee” doesn’t offend me at all. I myself have been told I have a drop or two of Cherokee blood. I have a VERY white, blonde-haired blue eyed friend who has enough Choctaw ancestry to still be registered with the tribe. BUT could I ever pass for native American in a film? No. Would I want to? No. Same as I don’t want a dark-eyebrowed “ethnic” white woman playing a Palestinian girl. You want an Arab, get an Arab. You want a Native, get a Native.

    Of course, it makes all the difference when money, ticket sales, and stereotypical material no real Native-American person would touch with a ten-foot-pole are involved. That’s where Depp comes in.


  2. Toby Says:

    Judging from the trailer, this film is indeed an insult — to our intelligence.


  3. Andrew Cefala Says:

    I have not seen the film yet, but had they cast Depp as the Lone Ranger and a Native American as Tonto, it would have worked a lot better and gotten great reviews instead of the awful ones it’s getting. So, yes, although the film interests me, I agree with your article.


  4. Danielle Says:

    Depp is an actor…do you get the meaning of actor? It means they act out things that they are not. You are making a mountain out of nothing. LOL! Actors, if they are good, can portray anyone…there is nothing new nor wrong with it.


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