For all of those (us) who are a little older and can remember rushing home at lunch time from school to catch the Cisco Kid or Lone Ranger on television, the serialized westerns had a fondness about them. It was also interesting to learn, later in life, about the actors themselves involved in the production and some of the things that went on into bringing the series to the small screen.
That’s a lot different today, were we receive information at break neck speed. And a new generation is ready to embark on the discovery of the Lone Ranger. Coming out today in theatres, the Lone Ranger stars Armie Hammer in the title role with johnny Depp in the role of Tonto. It’s that latter we’re going to focus on today.
Johnny Depp is probably as white (if not whiter) than I am. And I’m really white. Yet, he’s being given a pass to play the role of a Native American, a role which has one of the most famous Native American names attached to it in Jay Silverheels. For those who don’t recognize the name, Silverheels was born on the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation, near Brantford, Ontario, and was the son of Canadian Mohawk tribal chief and military officer Major George Smith (Silverheels was born as Harold J. Smith). He also was one of the best known actors to take on the role of Tonto in the television production of the Lone Ranger, that also starred long time actor Clayton Moore.
Silverheels wasn’t the first actor to play the role of Tonto, but he was the first actor of Native American heritage to take on the role. He is also best remembered for the role. And this was all in the 1950’s, even though the concept of the Lone Ranger began in the mid 1930’s. Consider how it was back in that time, when the Civil Rights Movement hadn’t even fully caught steam, and how people of colour weren’t even thought of as playing the role of an actor, unless it was a commonly held stereotype. We even saw this in the 1960’s when Ricardo Montalban was cast in the role of Khan in Star Trek. Khan was to be of East Indian ancestry, but Montalban was Mexican. Steps had been made, however, as Nichelle Nichols had a regular appearance on the show, and many women of colour (in particular black women) attribute Nichols role as Uhura as a defining moment that gave them hope.
Fastforward to 2013. The Civil Rights Movement is now a cornerstone of history, looked upon as a pivotal moment that changed the world so equality could truly happen. After all, just this year, oppressive and discriminatory articles such as DOMA are being struck down as unconstitutional. We live in a post racial society!
But, really, we don’t.
Racism has come on full force again. I’m not sure if it’s because there is a new push to make the status quo of white, hetero, cis gendered men the norm, or if it’s the fact that the internet let’s us see this with all too vivid clarity and as fast as someone can type. But even Hollywood is not helping, as the number of films that are released with PoC casts, or even leads is incredibly rare. And when roles do come around that were played by people of colour, they’re given to white men instead. Example Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, the whitewashing of the entire main cast for The Last Airbender, and now Johnny Depp as Tonto in the Lone Ranger. You could even go so far as George Lucas having difficulty filming Red Tails about black pilots or Danny Glover’s failed attempts to make a film about the Haitian Revolution. So no, we don’t live in a post racial society.
I’d like to say that boycotting the movie would work. Not going would send a message to Disney that not putting a viable person of colour in the role of a person of colour is very damning. But I also think that Disney wouldn’t take that as the message, that they’d blame the failure of a film on the script or production or on any number of things.
However, the Lone Ranger is one film I don’t intend on seeing anytime soon.