Monday, February 3

My Review of The Lone Ranger & Tonto

How the West was…Not

As a kid growing up in the 1960s the sound of Rossini’s Overture to William Tell could mean only one thing. It was time to watch the The Lone Ranger. To be honest, my only memories of those moments were Rossini’s music, the fact that I watched the show, and Tonto. More specifically, Jay Silverheels, the actor. It wasn't until nearly fifty years later that I would realize not only how little I knew of Native Peoples, but what a total sham my education had been. To realize that one’s master narrative has been from day one an enormous lie is a huge moment in one’s life. One that I still struggle to comprehend its effects on my life. I confess I was anxious to see the new Lone Ranger film with Johnny Depp. Mostly I was hoping that Mr. Depp would bring his now legendary character acting prowess into the arena of social debate, and right more than a few wrongs that the original Lone Ranger TV show had perpetrated. I was of course, disappointed. 

It is important to realize from the beginning, that Hollywood was, is and is only about one thing, money. Period. End of story. Having long ago abandoned the desire to make great films, Hollywood is now simply an economic machine. In that sense The Lone Ranger is an abysmal failure. According to the Internet Movie Database the 2013 version of The Lone Ranger had an estimated budget of some $215,000,000 million dollars, and as of the end of October 2013 has earned not quite $90 million dollars. In a Hollywood that is single mindedly focused on the next blockbuster, Depp’s movie is an unmitigated  flop. So why did Disney and famed director and producer Jerry Bruckheimer make this film? According to Kevin Cover (Pawnee) who is the director of the National Museum of the American Indian, Disney went to great lengths to gain Tribal support for the film. Disney even held a $1000 dollar per plate gala premier for the movie, with the proceeds going to the American Indian College Fund. Disney has more than a bit of a dark past when it comes to how it portrays Indigenous Nations Peoples. Peter Pan and Pocahontas are, to this day, still very controversial. In a July 3, 2013 article Time Magazine asks Is the Lone Ranger Racist? The article quotes at length Comanche Chairman, Wallace Coffey, who claims to be a silent advisor on the film. Coffey’s lengthy statement in Time is an important one: (quoted directly from the Time Magazine  article)
Coffey is an elected official for the Comanche people and was, according to a Disney spokesperson, an unofficial but respected adviser on the film. He says he doesn’t pay much attention to casting choices, but, as one with a deep interest in the story, he thinks it would have been nice to have a Native person starring in a big Hollywood movie. Still, on the day he spoke to TIME about The Lone Ranger, he had already seen the movie three times — and was looking forward to a fourth.
“I think it was a very realistic portrayal of a Native American. It’s got drama and it’s got a lot of comedy; it fits right in with Comanche culture because we are well known as a humorous people,” he says. “In some instances [at screenings], it was only the Comanches that laughed, because we could relate to it.” Coffey adds that he was pleased by the spiritual elements of the Tonto character, as an accurate enough nod to the relationship between a Native American of that time period and the environment in which he lived. Depp, who has said he has some Native American heritage (but unsure about tribe or extent), has also personally reached out to the Comanche people, an effort that Coffey says has been much appreciated. Depp was made an honorary member of the Comanche nation more than a year ago, and he attended the Comanche Fair last October as an honored guest.
Coffey says he’s happy whenever he sees Native Americans in pop culture, which includes those non-Depp characters in The Lone Ranger (played by actors like Gil Birmingham and Saginaw Grant). “This is just the beginning, is my thinking. It opens the doors for more creative visions with regard to Native Americans in the future,” he says. If there’s a sequel, he hopes even more American Indians get to be involved in it.
Depp in an interview with BBC radio states that he wanted to pay “Great Tribute” to the Comanche and to all “Native Nations around the world.” I must admit that he sounds quite sincere in his desire to genuinely “offer great intent” behind his performance. Depp credits the American painter Kirby Sattler and his painting entitled, “I Am Crow,” for his makeup, costume (the crow!) and the seminal inspiration for his portrayal of the character of Tonto. From Kirby’s own web site we read:
”My paintings are interpretations based upon the nomadic tribes of the 19th century American Plains. The subjects are a variety of visual references and my imagination. I am not a historian, nor an ethnologist. Being of non-native blood, without personal history, it would be presumptuous to portray the subject I paint from any other view than as an artist with an innate interest in the world’s indigenous cultures. I purposely do not denote a tribal affiliation to the majority of my subjects, rather, I attempt to give the paintings an authentic appearance, provoke interest, satisfy my audience’s sensibilities of the subject without the constraints of having to adhere to historical accuracy. [my emphasis added] I attempt to give the viewer of my work a sense of what these sacred objects meant to the wearer; when combined with the proper ritual or prayer there would be a transference of identity. More than just aesthetic adornment, it was an outward manifestation of their identity and their inter-relatedness with their natural and spiritual world.” 

I couldn't help but wonder after reading Sattler’s words “I purposely do not denote a tribal affiliation to the majority of my subjects,…,” how the artist could justify such a bold dichotomy of thought. The painting’s very name “I Am Crow,” would seem to denote a bold tribal affiliation. What I get from reading the artists words and looking at his work is that Sattler makes too many high and mighty claims about why he paints what he paints, as if to offset some sort of guilt that he’s making good, great even, money off Native imagery, or to justify a connection where there is none. This painting is important because it it is at the heart of Depp’s role as Tonto. It cannot be underestimated. The role of this painting, and Sattler’s attitude towards his work in general, has had on the making of the The Lone Ranger.

Hollywood movies do not exist in a vacuum. They are, or at least, can become cultural icons. It is a well known fact that if Hollywood tells a good story, even if the story is a lie, millions of people will prefer to believe the lie over the truth. So how does this so-called reboot of The Lone Ranger portray Native Peoples? At the outset of the movie we see Tonto in a carnival side show diorama entitled, “The Nobel Savage in His Native Habitat.” Aside from Tonto actually being alive here instead of a wax figure, this is an accurate  portrayal of how Native Peoples were thought of in the 1930s, and to a great degree, even today. To me it’s harsh, but accurate. It is at this point in the movie that the Tonto character comes to life, and becomes both narrator and co-protagonist. This movie is as much about a retelling of, or more accurately, an actual telling of Tonto’s origins, as it is about the origins of the Lone Ranger. I find it puzzling that this “lone” ranger is never alone, for Tonto is not just always there with him, but it is Tonto that pulls the Lone Ranger’s lilly-white ass out of the fire numerous times. In fact, in this telling of the Lone Ranger, it is Tonto that quite literally brings the Lone Ranger back from the dead. Well ok, the spirit horse helped,… a little. 

In Depp’s portrayal, Tonto is a Windigo hunter. The Windigo legend is not a Comanche legend, but one of a series of legends that are from around the Great Lakes regions, and also further North and east into upstate New York and Canada. One legend tells of the Windigo as a cannibal, or more properly, one who has become possessed by an evil spirit and is driven mad by the desire to consume his or her own family members. There is also some evidence from trial records of a Windigo hunter who was put to death for murder in the early 1800s. Little is actually known, as most records from that time are either not first hand accounts or obviously inflamed prejudicial fabrications. In the movie the main evil character, Butch Cavendish is depicted as a cannibal, and in the opening scene actually eats the heart of the then still living brother of the Lone Ranger.

We learn that Tonto suffers an intensely traumatic event as a young child when he first encounters the Cavendish brothers. The boy Tonto shows the white men the source of the silver mine, in exchange for a cheap silver pocket watch. Tonto is betrayed by the two white men and his entire village is destroyed. Tonto finds a dead crow, and transforms it into an alarming headpiece, and Tonto the Windigo Hunter is born. Later in the movie Tonto is made fun of by his own tribe, and the Windigo legend is dismissed as “ghost stories” the Comanche tell their children. This is a critical point in the movie where legend and story could merge. Tonto could have easily been vindicated by his tribe here. Cavendish is a cannibal, and the Lone Ranger knows this. There is an opportunity here for Tonto to emerge as a great warrior and leader, but alas, it is not to be. Did Hollywood and/or Depp blink here? I think so. 

Not much is known about Indigenous spirituality outside of the various Native communities. This saddens me as there is great depth and beauty here that is being overlooked. It appears that both Disney and Depp started out with good intentions. The silent Native advisor on the film, Wallace Coffey, has seen the film by his own count, four or five times, and claims to really like it. Yet, many Indigenous writers, and other experts on race and racism, say the film is blatantly racist. The history of Indigenous Peoples in America, and around the world, is one of a genocide that has been aggressively covered up. Given the nature of this deep and painful wound in our history, is it fair to think a Hollywood movie could fix or heal this tragedy in any meaningful way? However, it could have, at the very least, not add to the damage. With a such long and painful history should we expect one movie to engender the great change that is sorely needed? Yes, I think we can and should expect this! As movie goers we have in a big way, already voted. The lack of ticket sales sends a clear message of dislike to Hollywood. Sadly, it does not go far enough. There is very little opportunity to influence what movies do get made. The solution I feel, is that we must find a way for Indigenous Nations Peoples to tell their own stories. Helping Indigenous writers to get their original screenplays read and produced would go a very long way towards trying to right five hundred plus years of wrongs. Attempting to sway public opinion through such an already flawed vehicle such as The Lone Ranger, is a fool’s errand at best. 

In Michael Yellowbird’s article, Cowboys and Indians, he discus the idea that we don’t see play sets of slave owners with whips, or Nazi internment camps with club wielding guards for children to play with. Gover asks with good reason, why is there a Disney inspired and produced lego Comanche village playset with a Tonto and Lone Ranger figures. This playlet is complete with a canoe and, of all things, a scorpion launcher! The real culprit here is the great lie that is the master narrative of this country. Complete with a ready made set of manifest manners. 

This master narrative is nearly a super hero/action figure unto itself. It has been carefully crafted to be able to leap tall justifications, and is faster than a speeding telegram at spinning lies and deceit. However, when that lie is wielded by a powerful “A-List” character actor, such as Depp, we have not a recipe for reconciliation, but a continuation of cultural genocide. Depp’s powerhouse talents paired with Sattler’s heavily colonized artwork do not just inform the narrative of the movie, they are the source of it. No matter how well intentioned Disney, Depp and Bruckheimer claim to be, none of them make any mention of learning actual Indigenous history. To try and undo a myth, from inside the myth that defines and is a continuation of the selfsame myth is a huge waste of time, money and sincere efforts on the part of many well-meaning people, but more importantly, it does nothing to stop the continued genocide of Indigenous culture and peoples. 

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