The real problem with Johnny Depp's Tonto

Josh Larsen

Not to beat a dead horse – Disney’s The Lone Ranger earned a relatively whimpering $48.9 million over the long Fourth of July weekend – but there’s something I have to dig into before consigning the movie to the pile of forgotten Hollywood craptaculars.

How in the world, in 2013, did a character like Tonto find his way onto the big screen? A fixture from the early days of the 1930s Lone Ranger radio show, this Native-American sidekick has rarely been anything short of racist. Casting Johnny Depp in the part hasn’t changed that. In this new incarnation, Tonto may be wilier and wittier than the Lone Ranger himself (Armie Hammer), but he’s still a broadly painted caricature of a Native American (with a little of Depp’s Willy Wonka thrown in). If this still doesn’t strike you as a bad idea, imagine Jim Carrey playing Buckwheat in a grown-up version of Our Gang.

It isn’t only what the character of Tonto does, however (perpetuate cultural stereotypes). It’s what the character doesn’t do that also matters. The only legitimate reason to revive a problematic pop-culture artifact such as Tonto would be in pursuit of some sort of racial reconciliation. This could be done via comic satire (see Eddie Murphy’s take on Buckwheat), but that’s not what Depp’s mugging accomplishes here. He’s merely treading water, and the water he’s in is fetid.

Imagine Jim Carrey playing Buckwheat in a grown-up version of Our Gang.

I suppose you could argue that other parts of The Lone Ranger attempt some sort of reconciliation. The plot involves an illegal plan to run a train line through Comanche territory, thereby violating a peace treaty. And so we get scenes of Comanche warriors in futile battle against U.S. Army soldiers. Similarly, a flashback to Tonto’s youth recounts the massacre of his village at the hands of white miners. Yet if the movie acknowledges historical horrors, doing so only makes Depp’s clowning seem all the more ghastly and inappropriate.

It also shows a limited understanding of reconciliation. Racial reconciliation, especially as understood in a Christian context, is always looking forward, rooted in the assurance that Christ’s sacrifice has paved the way for a restored creation. Acknowledgment of a broken past is key, of course, yet we can’t be mired there. The focus is on cultivating that restored future, one that better reflects the harmony among diversity that was God’s creational intent.

In willfully embracing a figure such as Tonto, The Lone Ranger not only negates any sort of racial reconciliation, it fails to offer a way toward the shalom that awaits us. For some reason, when I imagine what that sort of shalom might look like, I just don’t see anyone in the group photo wearing whiteface.

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure