When I heard about Johnny Depp playing Tonto in the new Lone Ranger reboot, my first thought was, Hello, have the producers not heard of Adam Beach?
Beach is charismatic and easy on the eyes. He's worked in some award-winning films.
And, crucially, he's an actual First Nations man, not just the dress-up version.
After seeing The Lone Ranger, which is an unworkable mix of nastiness and forced fun, I think the Manitoba-born Beach might have dodged a (silver) bullet. Still, even if Beach didn't want a role that required him to wear a taxidermy crow on his head and talk without using complicated "white man" verb tenses, he, and other indigenous actors (Lorne Cardinal? Billy Merasty?), should have had right of first refusal.
There have been a few defences of the decision to cast Johnny Depp as Tonto. Let's try them out:
DEPP IS AN ACTOR:
Yes, I know. Actors put on costumes and makeup and pretend to be other people, like pirates and vampires and guys with scissors for hands. That's what they do. But if an ethnic role requires you to use spray-on body-paint and adopt a "funny" accent, that's probably a sign that you've crossed a line into cultural insensitivity.
While making vague claims to one-sixteenth Cherokee blood (why is it always Cherokee?), Depp is pretty white. In fact, in Tim Burton films, he's super-white, really working the extreme pallor thing. He's undeniably donned a kind of "red-face" for the role of Tonto.
The issue also involves simple fairness. It's not as if we're living in some post-racial utopia of colour-blind casting. The movies are still heavily weighted toward white stars. For most action heroes and romantic leads, the default setting is white. So when you finally get a major role that is specified as a First Nations character, gee, why not match it with a First Nations actor?
DEPP'S GOOD INTENTIONS:
Well, the road to hell and all that.
I don't think he means to be offensive. Depp has said in press interviews that he was struck, even as a child, by the idea that Tonto got a lousy deal. In this project, he's hoping "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."
It's true that The Lone Ranger makes Tonto less of a stoic sidekick and more of a comic lead, with the less-known Armie Hammer playing hapless straight man as the titular masked man. And Tonto's pragmatism is often contrasted with the ridiculous, fancified notions of the white characters. But it still feels like an outside view, an updated gloss on the idea of "the noble savage."
Granted, it's not like The Lone Ranger is pretending to be historically accurate. It's got horses jumping onto moving trains and enough explosions to blow up Monument Valley. It's a Jerry Bruckheimer movie machine, engineered to crank out sequels and theme-park rides and fast-food tie-ins.
But this blockbuster Disney movie still has pretensions to being a revisionist western full of Big Ideas. There's a kind of Occupy Dodge City theme in The Lone Ranger, in which the bad guys are all part of the military-industrial-capitalist complex, while the good guys are all African-Americans, American Indians, Chinese railway workers and women.
Of course, this clunky politically-correct line would be more convincing if the white guys didn't get almost all of the lines.
DEPP IS AN ICON:
There is a sense that Depp transcends the usual rules because of his megawatt star power and cut-glass cheekbones. Because of his sheer Johnny Deppness.
But it feels as if his aura is starting to fade (though the cheekbones are, admittedly, still impressive). His recent roles feel less like performances and more like elaborate impersonations, whether he's channelling Michael Jackson for his daffy take on Willy Wonka or a drunken Keith Richards for Captain Jack Sparrow.
In The Lone Ranger, Depp's Tonto is kind of a stone-faced Buster Keaton with a smidge of Alice Cooper and a finishing flourish of the Forever 21 "tribal" summer line. So yes, his performance is aggressively offbeat. But it's not that great.
DEPP IS A REBEL:
Why a man who's signed on for five Pirates of the Caribbean outings still gets billed as a rebel, I'll never know. Showing up at movie premieres looking like a hobo is not the same as challenging the Hollywood status quo.
For a guy who starred in one of the most revisionist anti-Westerns ever made, Jim Jarmusch's 1995 film Dead Man, Depp seems to have lost his way. As Tonto says -- several times, in his preordained role as spiritual sage -- "Nature is out of balance." With this last questionably "quirky" role choice, so is Depp's career.