The Lone Ranger and White Redemption
[Originally published July 2013, on Racialicious.com]
After reconciling the with myself the fact that I was indeed going to see The Lone Ranger at some point this weekend, I started reading Isabel Allende’s Zorro to remind myself that my love of masked vigilantes in what would become the American West don’t always have to come with a racist Johnny Depp-shaped kiddie meal toy.
I’d apologize to Disney for cheating my way into seeing The Lone Ranger*, but the movie isn’t worth it. It’s a two and a half hour slog that shines only in the final twenty minutes where you finally catch a glimpse of what the film — written by the team behind Aladdin, The Mask of Zorro, Pirates of the Caribbean and others — could have been. Unfortunately the film’s failings manage to go beyond Tonto’s white-washing. If you’re going to make something so incredibly racist that garners this level of backlash months before the final cut, at least have the decency to make it good.
But as a fan of the “American Outlaw” trope, this Ranger is only the latest disappointment. I’ll watch anything about The Lone Ranger, Jesse James, John Dillinger, Billy the Kid, and other (supposed) justice-seeking Robin Hood vigilante types, fictional or not. The whitening and brightening of these stories (figuratively and literally) is nothing new; there’s a long history in the genre of shaving down the truth to make these stories more palatable for the general (read: white) American audience. In The Lone Ranger it didn’t even only just apply to Johnny Depp as Tonto. Everyone involved manages to hit on a unique combination of blatant racism, missed opportunities, and straight-up bad filmmaking that makes The Lone Ranger the worst movie I’ve seen so far this year.
(Normally this is the point where I’d say something about Disney not missing that $9.00 I stiffed them on, but considering that Ranger is a $250 million movie that went wildly over budget after director Gore Verbinski insisted on building his own historical trains — which could be considered a baller move, except. Well. Three words: Wild Wild West — and was appropriately bashed by critics, I’d say that they’re looking for every ticket sale they can get.)
We’ll get to Tonto, I promise, but also of consequence is the potential white-washing of the Ranger himself. In recent years it’s been theorised that the character of the Lone Ranger was based on a Black U.S. Marshal and former slave, Bass Reeves. Shadow and Act does a good job of dissecting and laying out the similarities between the two, as Art Burton pointed out in Reeve’s biography.
But unless you’ve read Burton’s work or this really cool picture book, or listened very carefully for aside references on Justified (in 3.02 one of the Marshals mentions how surprising it is that Denzel Washington hasn’t been tapped to play Reeves in a bio-pic) it’s likely you’ve never heard of him.
This isn’t Disney’s fault; if the link between the Ranger and Reeves is true, the whitewashing started with the original radio plays featuring the character out of Detroit’s WXYZ station in the 1930s and continued through the WB’s (nee, the CW’s) TV movie version of the Ranger back in 2003, where the character was played by Chad Michael Murray. Notably, Tonto was played by Native actor Nathaniel Arcand, proving that it is possible to find a Native actor for the role. Given that I thought the WB version was high art when I was 13 and it’s not available on DVD or via torrent, I can only assume it wasn’t actually that good.
What I can tell you is that it still made a heck of a lot more sense than Verbinski’s film, in which lines like, “Stupid white man,” and “all these years I think you are wendigo, when you are just another white man,” carry a certain unintended depressing irony when being uttered by Johnny Depp in redface, while also making absolutely no sense.
Besides being baffling, Depp’s Tonto is just uncomfortable to watch. The barrage of stereotypes — the film throws wendigos, “spirit walkers,” and various other “totally Native American” bits against the wall, hoping something sticks enough to build one big cultural monolith — is topped off by one scene that degenerates into a “drunk Indian” joke; Tonto steals the Ranger’s whiskey, swallows it in one go, and tells him it’s an ancient Comanche custom to sample your friend’s drink.
It’s hard to enjoy a movie while wondering whether Depp is actually speaking a Comanche language or simply muttering incoherently. Unfortunately, given Depp’s rather cavalier, self-congratulatory attitude concerning the part for the past year and a half (this movie was supposed to open last December. Hah.), both options seemed equally possible. Remember this?
“I like the idea of having the opportunity to sort of make fun of the idea of Indian as sidekick…throughout the history of hollywood, the Native American has always been the second class, third class, fourth class, fifth class citizen, and I don’t see Tonto that way at all. So it’s an opportunity for me to salute Native Americans.” — Johnny Depp
But you might not remember that Ranger is not Depp’s first brush with white-washed casting in an Outlaw movie; in Public Enemies, he played real-life criminal John Dillinger, while his Menominee Nation girlfriend Billie Frechette was played by a white woman, Marion Cotillard. By his rationale, Depp likely assumed the Menominee would be honored just to have her prominently featured in the film, even though the character had also been played by white actresses Michelle Phillips (1973) and Sherilyn Fenn (1991). By the time Public Enemies was released in 2009 I remember distinctly thinking that Hollywood would have had to know better by that point. Not so much. And to be fair, that was probably expecting a lot from a film where the opening scene featured (white) Melvin Purvis shooting, and killing (also white) Pretty Boy Floyd as he tried to escape some very justified jail time while “Ten Million Slaves” — a song about slaves crossing the Middle Passage — played in the background.
Public Enemies continues in the tradition of not only white-washing, but also cleaning up stories about criminals and outlaws in order to make them easier to swallow. When you look at the current rash of critical television darlings and their leading characters — Dexter Morgan, Walter White, Nucky Thompson, Jax Teller, et al. — it’s clear there’s a motif Hollywood doesn’t appear to be letting go of anytime soon. White-anti heroes have always been afforded the luxury of being read as “complicated”. They’re multifaceted in ways that very few characters of color have been allowed to be.
Aside from a few and far between exceptions (and let’s remember that Django Unchained didn’t arrive without its share of controversy), characters of color (and women) who are morally corrupt and protagonists don’t receive the same recurring media attention and love. More often than not, characters of color are regulated to supporting roles and side plots and, as Depp’s films prove, that isn’t even guaranteed to be done right.
Not only are there more of these white protagonists, there are more of them on television — a medium that allows the viewer to spend years developing an attachment to someone like Tony Soprano. Years is certainly more than the two hours you spend with characters like Alonzo Harris or Tony Montana, both of whom die at the end of their stories, incidentally.
Maybe the biggest beneficiary of this treatment is Jesse James, who, despite his death in 1882, Jesse James has appeared over 25 times on film. That averages out to about once every 3–5 years since his first appearance on film in 1921, where he was played by his middle aged son in a series of silent films. Thanks to film and television we’ve managed to forget that James wasn’t an American Robin Hood who stood up against industrialist corporations and the rich. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, literally tells you that he was killed by a coward, setting up the viewer to feel sympathy for Brad Pitt’s portrayal of James from the get-go. But that film, American Outlaws (2001, played by Colin Farrell), Frank and Jesse (1995, played by Rob Lowe), and a host of other movies where he’s played by attractive and charming leading men fail to hammer home the fact that James was a slave-owning former Confederate guerilla soldier who blamed his turn to bank robbing on the fact that there were too many northern carpetbaggers in Missouri revoking former Confederate’s rights.
Despite this background Jesse James, certainly a contemporary of the Lone Ranger, is still a staple of the mythos of the outlaw American West in ways that Isom Dart, Red Lopez, Cherokee Bill, the Apache Kid, and Bass Reeves are not. We simply don’t do that for non-whites in American pop culture.
What we will do is cast a white man as the one main character of color, only to then elevate his status beyond where it ever stood in the original text. Johnny Depp’s Tonto begins and ends The Lone Ranger, framing the entire film as a story he’s telling to a young carnival goer (where Tonto himself is an attraction). To hear Tonto tell it, he’s the one who pushed the Ranger into using his innate sense of justice for good. He’s the one who does most of the work while the Ranger sat by as a particularly bumbling and inept hero until the final twenty minutes of the movie.
There were two frustrating elements to this portrayal. First, someone in the writers’ room clearly forgot that this movie was called The Lone Ranger and not Johnny Depp and a Bucket of Makeup. A film that forgets to make a hero out of its titular character is pretty much doomed to begin with. Then one has to wonder whether or not Tonto would have been as heavily featured had they cast a Native actor in the role. Did Tonto’s character get rewritten almost as a lead just because Johnny Depp is a bigger name than Armie Hammer? Probably. Tonto is written as just as much of an outlaw as the Ranger, as an outsider in his own tribe. They’ve both lost family they care deeply for, and they’re both after the same man for those murders. While the parallels should have worked the story falls flat on Depp’s shoulders.
As a fan of this genre I’ve learned to be somewhat accepting that this genre is the way it is. I accept and own numerous films about the same three or four white outlaw heroes, and become excited whenever something rare like They Die By Dawn comes around. Ranger should have at least been no worse than my other favorites. In fact, with the potential for a Native American co-star and a character that needed some modern updating, it was the perfect opportunity to turn some of the conventions of the genre on their ear. This could have been a movie about two outlaws, one white and one Comanche, learning from each other by combining their different to achieve a common goals.
Instead, we get a film about an inept white male outlaw hero, co-starring Johnny Depp doing his Breakfast at Tiffany’s Mickey Rooney best while surrounded by non-white set-pieces who, for some reason, all speak in stereotypically accented English (there is literally not one non-white person in this film who speaks “American” English). The film does absolutely nothing to challenge the racial conventions of the genre and literally ends with Mystical Native Tonto turning into a crow and flying away. Hitfix’s Drew McWeeny sums this one up perfectly: Nope.
<small>*Don’t worry. I didn’t actually give Disney my money.Unable to finish Allende’s book before the movie started, I decided on one more act of penance and bought a ticket for Kevin Hart’s Let Me Explain, instead of Ranger to make up for all those episodes of The Real Husbands of Hollywood I may or may not have downloaded last winter.</small>