Social Justice: The Reaction to Johnny Depp’s Tonto
Most of our Social Justice posts see a high percentage of social rage and/or debate play out on Facebook; the back and forth over Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto was much more of a Twitter and Blog discussion.
If you haven’t bumped into any of the controversy it’s because, as far as Social Media Rage goes, this one is about a 5 on the justice meter when it comes to outrage.
The second uprising in Egypt has been the focus and concern of much of the Traditional press, and unlike the Paula Deen controversy, it appears that Americans shrug off the outcry of the Native American community with less angst than they do the use of racial slurs aimed at African Americans.
The Foundation of Johnny Depp’s Tonto
Last week I listened to an interview with Depp on NPR about his version of Tonto for the new Disney blockbuster; let’s just say I found it odd. His inspiration came from a painting by Kirby Sattler titled ”I Am Crow.”
Sattler himself describes the painting:
The display of face paint design crow feathers and crow headdress in the painting “I AM CROW” is an illustrative interpretation of the inseparable relationship between the Native American and their spiritual and natural world. I purposely do not denote a specific tribal affiliation to my paintings, allowing the personal sensibilities and knowledge of the viewer to create their own stories.
Not surprisingly, Sattler is thrilled with Depp’s portrayal of Tonto; his print is now selling like hotcakes on his website.
Johnny Depp himself was not totally oblivious to the potential for backlash as he, a white actor, played a larger than life Tonto.
In his interviews for both Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly, he talks about his childhood awareness that something is wrong when he watched the white actor, John Todd, play a monosyllabic sidekick to the Lone Ranger.
“I remember watching it as a kid, with Jay Silverheels and Clayton Moore, and going: ‘Why is the f–ing Lone Ranger telling Tonto what to do?’” Depp told Entertainment Weekly. “I liked Tonto, even at that tender age, and knew Tonto was getting the unpleasant end of the stick here. That’s stuck with me. And when the idea came up [for the movie], I started thinking about Tonto and what could be done in my own small way try to — ‘eliminate’ isn’t possible — but reinvent the relationship, to attempt to take some of the ugliness thrown on the Native Americans, not only in The Lone Ranger, but the way Indians were treated throughout history of cinema, and turn it on its head.”
However, when he actually created the visual for his character, there wasn’t a lot of research into Native American culture. The Disney blog quotes him:
“I was doing ‘The Rum Diary’ with Bruce (Robinson) in Puerto Rico, and I had already found a painting of a Native American warrior with these stripes down his face, I asked my makeup artist, Joel Harlow, who is a wizard, to help me put something together. So we did the makeup and I asked the photographer, Peter Mountain, to take some shots. We went out into these filthy weeds and started taking some photographs and Peter printed them out and showed me and I was like, ‘Yeah, I think we’ve found him and now he needs to be brought to life.’ I called up Jerry and said, ‘Look, when I’m back in LA, I’d love to sit down with you.”
Almost as soon as the look of the Depp created Tonto was out, he was having to explain his creation.
Johnny Depp Dug in Deep on Tonto
Disney and Depp were obviously aware from the beginning that their new Tonto may cause a stir, and they’ve done a decent job of fending off the backlash.
However, much of the outrage that does exist was generated from Depp’s own interviews.
Way back in 2011 he told Enterntainment Weekly that he did indeed have some Native American ancestry:
“I guess I have some Native American (in me) somewhere down the line. My great grandmother was quite a bit of Native American, she grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian. Makes sense in terms of coming from Kentucky, which is rife with Cherokee and Creek.”
He then goes on to the quote that really created issues:
“The interesting thing, if you find out you’ve got Native American blood, which a lot of people do, is you think about where it comes from and go back and read the great books (on the subject)… you have to think, somewhere along the line, ‘I’m the product of some horrific rape’. You just have that little sliver in your chemical make-up.”
I’m sure his publicist was thrilled with that statement.
One of the recent interviews that sparked the most commentary from those for and against the Depp’s Tonto was with Rolling Stone.
When discussing how Native Americans may receive his version of Tonto, he says:
“I wanted to maybe give some hope to kids on the reservations. They’re living without running water and seeing problems with drugs and booze. But I wanted to be able to show these kids, ‘F**k that! You’re still warriors, man.”
In all of his interviews Johnny Depp tries to explain that he meant no offense to Native Americans, and not all have been offended; he was made an honorary Comanche during the filming of The Lone Ranger.
What Are We Supposed to Think?
JJDuncan wrote a stellar piece titled that perfectly How to Talk About the Problems with Johnny Depp’s Tonto Without Sounding Sanctimonious that hones in on the fact that there is something creepy and uncomfortable for many of us just seeing Depp’s Tonto. Many have called the character out for being just another weird version of Jack Sparrow.
In Duncan’s piece he leads us to a tweet by Lena Dunham that sums it up perfectly for many of us:
Native Americans Speak Out about Depp’s Tonto
Adrienne Keene, founder of NativeAppropriations.com, describes her blog as “a forum for discussing representations of Native peoples, including stereotypes, cultural appropriation, news, activism, and more.”
Keene was discussing the movie way before itcame out, writing Depp’s Tonto, I’m still not feeling honored back in April of 2012. She immediately questions why Depp would use a painting by a non-Native American as the basis for his character, when that painter readily admits that the work came purely from his imagination.
She cringes at the stereotypes of Native Americans that she sees in both the painting and Depp’s come-to-life copy of it.
She also takes issue with Depp’s description of how the black vertical striped face paint represented pieces of the individual, the apparently Native American individual:
Because Tonto happens to be Native American, he has to be “wise,” “tortured and hurt,” “angry and rageful,” and “very understanding and unique”? That’s like Hollywood Indian Stereotypes 101.
(On Keene’s blog you’ll also find her scathing but quite witty post, I saw The Lone Ranger so you don’t have to; it’s worth a read even if you aren’t interested in the potentially racists issues.)
Keen wasn’t alone in her refutation of Johnny Depp’s Tonto; you can dive into these blogs yourself, but in most cases the titles tell the story:
- Depp’s Tonto ‘A Major Setback for the Native American Image,’ Says Expert
- It’s time to stop mocking Native Americans
Suffice it to say that many Native Americans are offended by the Depp recreation of Tonto.
Is the Depp Tonto Portrayal a Non-Issue?
Often when I write these Social Media Justice posts I get push back from friends and others who ask “Aren’t there bigger problems in the world?” The answer to that is obvious and always YES.
However, the point of this series is to follow the impact of social media on issues of the day, both in marketing and real life. Sometimes that impact is profound, and sometimes it is negligible or non-existent.
The reality is that Depp’s Tonto made some people cringe, it angered many Native Americans, but it did not develop into a full fledged social media backlash like we’ve seen in other instances.
The initial ticket sales project that the film will earn just shy of $200 million domestically, which is far less than the projects for Disney’s Despicable Me 2.
From what the critics are writing the lack of true blockbuster status has a lot to do with bad film making in general and nothing to do with the sensitivity around Depp’s Tonto. In the grand scheme of Hollywood firestorms, this story will most likely fade from coverage and be forgotten totally.
What makes this a topic worthy of in depth discussion is that it centers on the difficult discussions of race in American culture.
Although the controversy did not take on the viral coverage that the Paula Deen deposition did, Native Americans who are disappointed and angered by the film have a voice via social channels that was missing in the past.