Musings on The Lone Ranger, Tonto, and Cultural Appropriation


The Lone RangerYes, I get the reason some people might have been outraged that a white guy (Johnny Depp) played an indigenous person in the 2013 movie version of The Lone Ranger. It seemed, at least from the outside at the time — before watching it — to reinforce stereotypes and denigrate native Indians. Cultural appropriation and all that. What was Disney thinking? Facepalm! Whitewashing! But wait…

Time magazine had a review with the title, Johnny Depp as Tonto: Is The Lone Ranger Racist? NPR’s reviewer asked Does Disney’s Tonto Reinforce Stereotypes Or Overcome Them? Maclean’s magazine asked: A white man as Tonto—is that kosher? The review described Depp as “a white actor playing a red man in whiteface with a dead crow on his head.” Shades of the 1920s and white actors wearing blackface.

Or maybe not. Maybe it was all just a virtue-signalling kerfuffle. And maybe the director wanted an actor who could fulfill the vision of the role, not merely signal political correctness. Depp certainly does a great job in the role, perhaps one of his best. And maybe it really was a spoof; a satire on the whole Western white hero-gunslinger genre, just not as obvious about it as Blazing Saddles.*

The first and most important point of a play or movie is to entertain. We watch films and read novels because we all have storytelling deep within our genes. Humans told stories when they sat in caves at the edge of the ice sheets, tens of thousands of years past. The earliest written works are Sumerian stories in cuneiform, scratched into clay tablets about 4,000 years ago. Scriptures from around the world are records of a long history of oral storytelling finally written down as writing was invented. Homer, writing his great epics in archaic Greek, was retelling tales passed down to his generation from earlier civilizations four or five centuries prior.

Gunslinger GodzillaAlong with the storytellers came those who retold the tales in dramatic form, often in groups (or troupes), acting out the parts on stage in front of an audience. Since at least the oldest Greek playwrights, actors have been playing someone they’re not. Theatre is as old as civilization across the globe. The Line Ranger was just part of a long line of actors playing someone else that goes back to Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles.

Shakespeare is full of people pretending to be someone else: royalty, Italians, pirates, Bohemians, clerics, women, deities, magicians, and even ghosts. And, yes, in blackface (Othello) too. In Shakespeare’s day, women weren’t even allowed onstage and all the female parts were played by men (in some plays, men playing women pretending to be men…).

Isn’t the purpose of theatre, of storytelling itself, to give an audience a glimpse into an imaginary world? To portray people, places, and events that are not us? To show us somewhere, something, someone else? To transport us, suspend our sense of reality while we are immersed in the fantasy? And isn’t the point of acting to represent something or someone else other than themselves? If we draw a line at portrayals of another race as inappropriate, how do we justify portraying another gender, religion, profession, faith, nationality, or talent?

I’m old enough to recall Ming the Merciless (the evil ruler of Mongo) in Flash Gordon serials at the movie theatre. An Asian played by a white guy (Charles Middleton) and later played by the Swedish Max von Sydow in the 1980 film Flash Gordon. The American actor Christopher Walken revisited the role in the satirical 2007 film, Balls of Fury.

And I have seen many Charlie Chan movies with the Asian detective played by the Swedish-born Warner Oland, who also played the evil Asian villain, Fu Manchu — a character played by a long series of white actors, including Boris Karloff in 1932 and Nicholas Cage in 2007. After Oland’s death, Chan was played by Sidney Toler, another white actor. The excellent 2012 film Cloud Atlas featured numerous European actors portraying Asians.

I recall the TV series, Last of the Mohicans, with Lon Chaney Jr. playing Chingachgook and the UK’s Powys Thomas playing another indigenous chief. And Mel Brooks playing the Yiddish-speaking Indian chief in 1974’s Blazing Saddles.

Then there’s Frank Capra’s wonderful 1937 film, Lost Horizon, featuring among others, Sam Jaffe as a Tibetan lama, and other white actors playing Tibetans. And the many Hollywood films where men played women, from Some Like It Hot to Mrs. Doubtfire. And then there’s the very popular  Irish TV series, Mrs. Brown’s Boys, with the lead female character played by Brendan O’Carroll, a man.

Linda Hunt played a man in The Year of Living Dangerously. Anne Carlisle did it in Crocodile Dundee. Glenn Close did it in Hook. Margaret Cho did it in the TV series, 30 Rock. Peter Pan, that beloved character from the children’s book, is often portrayed on screen and stage by a woman.

Or what about straight men playing gay men? The Birdcage, Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain, Capote, and Howl are just a few examples. Or actors playing monsters? From Frankenstein to the Creature From the Black Lagoon, actors have played monsters, demons, vampires, lycanthropes, and invisible mad scientists. Jews playing Christians, Christians, playing Jews? Both playing Muslims? Does anyone believe it wasn’t an actor in the latex Godzilla suit?***

What about actors playing doctors, lawyers, scientists, astronauts, kings, queens, soldiers, submarine commanders, politicians, reporters, poets, and spies? Is that cultural appropriation? What about opera singers playing all sorts of roles and races, a tradition that goes back hundreds of years? Who is not moved to tears by the suicide aria of the Japanese Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly, a role most often played by European women? Who does not laugh at the antics of the characters in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Mikado, ostensibly set in Japan, but almost always played by white performers?

What about actors playing mythical, historical, or religious characters like Santa Claus: Edmund Gwenn playing Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, for example. Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments? The American actor Jim Caviezel playing Jesus in the dreary Passion of the Christ? English actor Ben Kingsley playing an Indian in Gandhi? Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra? The entire cast of Monty Python playing Jews and Romans (and some male cast members playing women) in The Life of Brian? Russian-born Yul Brynner playing a Siamese royal in The King and I? Scarlett Johansson playing the cyborg reincarnation of a Japanese girl in Ghost in the Shell?

Or British actors playing Americans? American actors playing Germans and French? The Irish actor Liam Neeson playing a German in Schindler’s List? Where would American TV series like The Wire or The Affair be without the talented English actor Dominic West speaking with an American accent?

Gunslinger Godzilla 2And lest we neglect the aliens played in science fiction by white and black actors, from Star Trek‘s Spock to Dune‘s pseudo-Muslim fremen played by white actors, male and female (less so, admittedly, in the recent film version). And then there are various humans, cyborgs, robots, superheroes, gods, monsters, and aliens in a wide range of films including James Bond, Batman, Marvel superheroes, X-men, Spiderman, Blade Runner, Predator, Alien, and Star Trek… films full of actors who clearly aren’t aliens, gods, monsters. or cyborgs (well, at least we hope not…).

But wait… in the TV series The Lone Ranger, Jay Silverheels played Tonto. Silverheels was a Canadian actor of Mohawk descent playing an Apache (or Commanche, depending on which origin story is used), an entirely different nation and culture. Is that kosher? Chief Dan George, another Canadian actor, this time from the Salish Tribe of British Columbia, played a Cheyenne chief in 1970’s Little Big Man, again another nation entirely (one of my favourite films and books, BTW**). Graham Greene, another Canadian actor, is an Oneida from Ontario who played a Lakota Sioux in Dances With Wolves.

Even when it seems to be getting better, Hollywood took criticism for Crazy Rich Asians, by casting the wrong Asians in the roles, although audiences didn’t seem to care (the film grossed $239 million worldwide, against a production budget of $30 million).

And so we’ve arrived in the early 21st century CE with access to actors from around the globe and the filmmakers chose a white guy to play the Indian, Tonto. Yeah, sure, in some senses it sucked. but… it wasn’t entirely outrageous.  Would people have been more upset had an indigenous person been cast in a role of a caricature, a character who is mocked and endures pratfalls in the film? Methinks the outrage might have been louder.

Whitewashing? Perhaps. Malicious? I suggest not. I would argue that today it’s not done to dehumanize, to belittle, to discriminate as it might have been done in earlier generations, but rather to give actors a chance to expand their range, and for directors to choose actors for roles based on their abilities or talents rather than just their race. Actors are also chosen for their box office appeal and their looks, a given for Hollywood trying to rake in the cash (otherwise why would the 54-year-old Tom Cruise have starred in the execrable 2017 remake of The Mummy?). And actors themselves need to test the limits of their talent by taking on difficult, even controversial, and challenging roles. If not given that opportunity, they can’t grow, can’t expand their repertoire.

The point of culture is, at least in my view, not to contain it within a limited reach like some sort of ghetto, or to make it a museum piece to be viewed from a distance, but to share it, to see it spread, to embrace and enjoy its extensions. Culture should be engaged, celebrated, explored, tasted, read, and shared. If I make curry for dinner,  serve it with Italian wine, while listening to Japanese shakuhachi music, is it cultural appropriation?

Maybe it was a bad choice to cast Depp as Tonto because it inevitably stoked the fires of political correctness outrage at the time. Maybe it was the best choice because it was intended as a spoof on the Western genre and it needed him to make that statement. I can’t imagine the decision was made without anyone considering the backlash it might create, but who knows the minds of Hollywood executives? Maybe it was just about acting and actors and not about race, ideology, or politics.

Maybe some folk missed the point.


* It really came across as a satire on the second viewing, but like Little Big Man, it includes a fair amount of pathos in its depiction of the racism of the Wild West and the treatment of Indians.

** In Little Big Man, Texas-born American actor Ruben Moreno played the Cheyenne warrior Shadow That Comes in Sight, the first “native Indian” encountered in the film, and Cal Bellini, born Khalid Ibrahim, a Singapore-born actor as Younger Bear, the protagonist’s perpetual enemy. Dustin Hoffman, a Californian Jew, plays the lead role: a Christian adopted by the Cheyennes. That movie, too, like the book, was a satire on the Western trope. Not quite as blatant as 2011’s Cowboys and Aliens or 1971’s Zachariah, however, but deeper than both.

*** Sadly, to date no one has made a Western film starring Godzilla, but I would enjoy it…

Words: 1,875

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

One comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to Top