Now that we've all had time to digest the appalling mess that was The Lone Ranger, we need to talk about Tonto. Johnny Depp managed to create a character who is a horrifying mashup of Jar Jar and Jack Sparrow. What the hell happened there? Spoilers ahead.
It's hard to deny the similarities between Tonto and Jar Jar — both are clownish sidekicks to the true heroes of their stories, barely able to string four words together. But once in a while, they blunder their way into saving the day. Critics pointed to Jar Jar's accent and behavior as mirroring stereotypes of Caribbean people; still, it was possible for George Lucas to argue that sometimes a Gungan is just a Gungan. Obviously, nobody can make that argument with Tonto. Jar Jar is a racial stereotype by inference, while Tonto is pure, uncut racial stereotype.
Just in case you didn't get the stereotype message, though, the movie opens with an aged Tonto at 1930s sideshow, standing in a diorama labeled, "The Noble Savage in his Native Habitat." OK, thanks movie. This bit, and Tonto's frequent "stupid white man" comments, are supposed to make us think the movie is somehow in on a joke about racism with us. We can all just wink and nudge each other over how ridiculous those "noble savage" stereotypes are, right? Because nothing really proves that white people "get it" more than updating a racist Indian character invented in the 1930s with a white actor in facepaint and feathers, and having him speak in broken English to a dead crow.
The weird part is that almost 20 years ago, Depp was in a film that made fun of movies like Lone Ranger. He played a naive white guy on the American frontier who is semi-adopted by an Indian in Dead Man, a brilliant and humane film that tries (and mostly succeeds) in debunking the Tonto myth in every possible way. My point is that there are ways of dealing with Indian stereotypes without resorting to reanimating them in a failed attempt at humor.
The problem with Depp's Tonto is he's the butt of the movie's jokes, not the trickster who reminds us that our preconceptions about Indians are foolish. Many critics of Depp's Tonto agree. In the Smithsonian, Jerry Adler writes:
Although Tonto’s grammar has improved greatly since the “Me go now” dialogue of 60 years ago, Depp still reads his lines in the sententious, wisdom-of-the-elders cadences that Indians call “Tonto-speak.” “He could have treated the Tonto-speak as a joke, like the spirit-talk and the funny hat,” muses Theodore C. Van Alst Jr., director of the Native American Cultural Center at Yale. “In 2013, that could work. But by playing it straight, he gives the impression that Indians really were like that. And I’m afraid that Tonto is the only Indian most Americans will ever see.”
There would have been ample opportunities for us to have this kind of Tonto, who at some point winks and says in perfect English, "Yeah, I just wear this bird hat because it's what everybody expects. In fact, I bought it from a British anthropologist." But instead, the movie tries to come up with another excuse for Tonto's Gungan-style antics. He acts like an idiot because he was traumatized when a bunch of evil white men slaughtered his village for silver. We are treated to a long, horrific flashback to Tonto's childhood, when he sees his family murdered, goes mad, and puts a dead bird on his head.
And then we immediately return to the present, where Tonto is jumping around and acting ridiculous. The tonal incongruity is simply terrible. This backstory doesn't add gravitas to Tonto; instead, it makes the killing of Indians into just another aspect of his general foolishness. The Lone Ranger folds genocide into a slapstick routine, making the victim into the punchline.
I suppose one way to look at this abysmal failure is to say that you can't really make a comedy about genocide. No, The Producers doesn't count — that's a comedy about a musical about genocide. Life is Beautiful doesn't count either, because that's about characters using humor to cope with genocide. This movie is neither a media meta-commentary, nor a tale of how people cope with tragedy through laughter. It's just a really awkward attempt to preserve the campy tone of the 1950s Lone Ranger TV series, while also inserting all the things that white liberals learned from watching Dances with Wolves.
So to return to my earlier question: How the hell did this happen? It's 2013 and we're still making movies where white guys play dumb Indians in a mythical version of the American west? I suppose picking Depp for Tonto is one way that this movie benefits from modern political transparency. It's more honest to have a white guy playing Tonto since the character is such a white fantasy of Indians anyway.
Ultimately the lesson I would take away from The Lone Ranger is that some stories just can't be rebooted. I'm reminded of King Kong, another famously racist story from the 1930s, full of ooga-booga natives and big black monkeys who are obsessed with teeny white ladies. Peter Jackson's reboot of King Kong was filled with the same kind of race fail as The Lone Ranger. There is just no way to contort those old-school racist adventures into fun, contemporary action movies. Their narrative foundations are built on stereotypes and social assumptions that don't work in the present day. Maybe they can be revived as dark satire, like Dead Man or Django Unchained — but even then, the risk of fail is pretty high.
There are already many reasons why the reboot frenzy in pop culture is impoverishing our abilities to tell fresh, challenging stories. But when a movie like The Lone Ranger gets remade like this, with its Tonto stereotype intact, we don't just starve ourselves creatively. We starve ourselves politically too.