Posts Tagged ‘Jay Silverheels’

Depp as Tonto: Debate Heats Up


by Glenn Lovell

Johnny Depp as Tonto? I know, I know, in this age of political correctness, it sounds like a bad joke. Depp has said he took the role in Disney’s “The Lone Ranger” because he wanted to redress how shabbily Tonto (Jay Silverheels) was portrayed in the old TV series. Strange reasoning: I hated the way an authentic Mohawk played the role, so I, a Caucasian, have decided to make up for it by donning war paint and feathers.

My column on Depp masquerading as Tonto (“Greasepaint Injun“) brought a ton of reaction, some siding with me, some suggesting I put a lid on the bleeding-heart thing.

“I saw a pre-screening a few nights ago,” said Denise Hobbs. “I had not planned on seeing it because of Depp’s role but when asked to the hr_The_Lone_Ranger_12screening, I took advantage of the opportunity. I find it interesting that Depp says he hated how Tonto was portrayed in the original. Well, (Jay Silverheels) was MUCH BETTER than what I saw Depp doing! I was embarrassed watching him make a mockery out of the character. It was Jack Sparrow dressed as Tonto! And I was appalled! He thought he was being funny and it was offensive. He was offended (by the TV series) as I child, well I am NOW offended at his portrayal as an adult.”

Added Christine Candelaris: “I was excited to see Depp’s Tonto in the trailer. His look is almost an exact copy of the Kirby Sattler image “I Am Crow,” an artistic representation of the Crow people from the American Midwest. My husband has worn this image on a t-shirt for years.”

Nikos Lynch said, “If we take this to its natural conclusion, then the Fighting Irish should be offensive; and what about the Irish-one-day-a-year sporting little plastic glitter walking hats on St. Patty’s Day?”

Ellen Mosher weighed in:I agree with Glenn Lovell’s article. There are plenty of good Native American actors who could have played Tonto. Native Americans do not run around in war paint and ceremonial garb everyday as depicted in the movie. The lack of sensitivity and stereotyping of Native American culture and traditions that still goes on is appalling. The parallel with Saint Patrick’s Day and the ‘fighting Irish’ does not follow. St. Patrick’s day is a day that has been embraced by many in the American culture as a happy celebration day, and the term ‘fighting Irish’ has a positive meaning suggesting strength and winning attitude. The stereotyping of Native Americans suggests a primitive and inferior culture when compared to the European culture.

JoMont: “Plenty of good Native American actors don’t sell at the box office like Depp. Let’s get real here. At least he isn’t using a Brooklyn accent like many in the 60’s. No one appeared offended when he played numerous other accented characters. In the big picture, this sort of yammering I find, troublesome.”

Wrote Bob Rosenthal: “Johnny Depp is an actor. Actors play roles. He is playing a role, his job. I will see the movie, realizing it is just a movie, not reality, and eat my popcorn and drink my Pepsi. Like everyone else I have the option of either seeing the movie or not seeing it if I feel it is objectionable.”

Don Gateley didn’t mince words. “Oh, please go away, Lovell. Must you have something to criticize and complain about? Most of these ‘caricatures’ were intended to honor, not insult. Malcontents will always find a way to twist it to tweak their disorder and offer themselves as above the ignorant, unwashed and politically incorrect masses. Your screed is tiresome.

“And, Ellen, I went to the University of Illinois where our rallying figure was in ceremonial dress and danced in honor of the defeated but still mightily respected fighting Illinois Indians who proved themselves a formidable foe.”

Michelle McIntyre: “According to reliable sources, Johnny Depp is Cherokee on his mom’s side. Works for me.”

An anonymous voice asked, “Lovell, are you Native American? If you are not then you are playing the role of White Savior. A role that colonizers have played many times with disastrous consequences to indigenous cultures. Since the word native in Western culture means primitive, I will use the term First Nation People. According to Depp, he is a descendant of First Nation ancestors, which makes him a First Nation person. Cherokee do not go by the European blood quantum policies that were forced upon most tribes by the U.S. government. One drop of Cherokee blood means you are a Cherokee. Which drop of water is not important to the river? I see your article as just another form of colonization by Europeans. You are saying live my way because it is best for you. Please let First Nation People deal with their own problems and live their own lives.”

Gary Hinze concluded, “You are too easily offended. Being offended on behalf of somebody else doesn’t even ring true. Like the white guy who smashed the Christopher Columbus statue at San Jose City Hall in protest supposedly on behalf of Indians. There are differences of opinion in the aboriginal community on this. The majority support Indian mascots. Some Indian groups have given approval to sports teams using Indian mascots. Others have objected. It could depend on how it’s done. If a sports team was to use a Japanese mascot, it surely would not be the demeaning war propaganda figure you postulate. It would likely be a fierce Samurai warrior. Are the Indians offended by the San Jose State Vikings?”

A testy Mila, obviously not familiar with my byline from years at the Mercury News, wrote: “So you’re a ‘local’ film critic? What does that mean exactly? Because based on your article you know nothing about movies or Johnny Depp. First of all, Johnny Depp has never been lily white. Second of all, he IS of Native American heritage himself. Third, his representation of Tonto is brilliant because he has consciously chosen to elevate Tonto’s role in the movie from the traditional and indeed stereotypical ‘sidekick’ to a real mentor and friend to the Lone Ranger. And lastly the make-up that he has chosen for his character is very, very appropriate.

“Here is a picture of an authentic Crow person (by Sattler), for your education: So as you can see Johnny Depp is more than qualified to play Tonto and has done the research he needed to do for his role. Unlike you, who clearly are neither qualified to comment on movies or political correctness nor has bothered to do even a quick Internet search on the topic. But you just wrote this article to get attention, didn’t you?”

Jeri Danforth: “Funny how these comments are split between Johnny Depp fans and non-fans. I agree with Glenn. Tribes recognize members according to tribal rolls. In the case of the Cherokee, even if Depp has only one drop, he should be able to trace his ancestry on the Dawes rolls. As of now, no one has heard that he has even tried. So what’s stopping him? He could easily put a stop to all this fuss if he would speak with the tribe he claims membership for and ask for their assistance.

Gary Hinze again: “Tonto is not a real Indian. Depp does not need to prove he is a real Indian to play a fictitious Indian. Actors play roles. They play extraterrestrials, zombies, even pirates. They don’t have to be real extraterrestrials, zombies or pirates. A movie is a story. This one is fiction. It is not a documentary. Depp does not need to prove he is an Indian, or a pirate. He proves his qualifications as an actor at the box office. He brings in millions of dollars. QED.”

H. Pasterlink demanded, “What reliable sources are you referring to? Cherokee rolls? His maternal great-grandmothers were Kentucky girls, nothing to suggest that they were Native American. His great-grandmother’s name is Minnie, and she was allegedly the mother of his paternal grandfather, (Walter) Everett Wells. But his mother was actually named Anna or Annie, maiden name Cooper. No Indian blood there.”

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.