Disney's 'The Lone Ranger' Faces Racist Allegations, But This Is Familiar Territory for Disney
Every year for Father's Day, my dad and I go see a movie together. I pay for our tickets; he usually feels guilty and pays for the popcorn and soda himself. Which movie we see is left up to him, and so he usually picks one that I'd never hunt out on my own (for good reason). Thankfully, his choices tend to be movies that are so-bad-they're-good, such as the Fantastic Four sequel in 2007 or The Incredible Hulk in 2008. I've come to appreciate my dad's questionable taste in movies, even when, last year, I had to sit through all 105 minutes of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. (Believe me, I counted.)
This year, he decided that we'd see The Lone Ranger. He read the middling reviews and saw the box office reports, but they had no effect on his wish. He was set on seeing The Lone Ranger. My father is a middle-aged white guy, and was thus the target audience for this movie. While Disney may be attempting to market the film to younger audiences, there's no getting around the fact that The Lone Ranger is made for the men who grew up watching it every week on TV. To boot, its star, Johnny Depp, is a white man who appeals to a predominantly white audience. Things get more complicated, however, when you consider that the actor is not playing a white man, but a Native American character in Lone Ranger.
Critics of the film have claimed that by casting Depp as Tonto instead of a Native American actor, The Lone Ranger is blatantly disregarding any semblance of political correctness. (Disney has not responded to Bustle.com's request for comment, but several actors from the film have defended the film.) This isn't simply a case of an actor changing his looks for a role, i.e. Anne Hathaway losing weight for Les Mis or Tom Felton going platinum for Harry Potter. But while Depp's performance hasn't been maligned by critics, Disney's decision to cast him sure was. "His Tonto, though perhaps politically off-key, is at least charitably low-key," said The Atlantic . Said The New York Daily News , ""Depp — the first Caucasian performer to play Tonto — will likely be brushed off and targeted for playing a Native American, though he and Verbinski get away with it by keeping the mood cartoonish."
Casting Depp as Tonto may not have turned out as terribly as critics feared, but the fact that he was chosen to play the famed Native American character in the first place still feels uncomfortable. Yet, unfortunately, it's not surprising. Disney, the studio behind The Lone Ranger, has a long history with racist allegations, having not even introduced an African-American princess until 2009's The Princess and the Frog. So it simply seems par for the course that the studio would rather have an A-list sure thing (that turned out to be not so sure), Depp, in the role of Tonto instead of an unknown box office risk. "[Disney has] a long, problematic history," says Jason Sperb, author of Disney's Most Notorious Film: Race, Convergence, and the Hidden Histories of Song of the South. "Disney has always been criticized for being somewhat insensitive for how those other races and cultures get represented."
Need examples? Aladdin, which features dialogue describing the Middle East as a place "where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face" didn't fly too well with Arab viewers. Or Dumbo, where crows literally named "Jim Crow" are said to be poor, uneducated, and into all things stereotypically "black," such as pimp-like hats and everything "fly." There are cunning, slanted-eyed, "Asian" Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp, mute Native Americans with bright red skin in Peter Pan, and an unemployed, free-spirited Jamaican-accented crab in The Little Mermaid. In more Disney films than not, racism is in full force.
In recent years, however, there has been progress. Says Sperb, "More recently, there's been trends in better directions, like, for example, The Princess and the Frog... but it’s telling that it took so long to have something like that exist."
Even though Disney, and other Hollywood studios, seem to be heading in a more racially positive direction, there's still some major barriers they need to overcome. Casting white actors to play racially diverse roles instead of actors of different ethnic backgrounds is no doubt disturbing many in our progressive era. (See 2012's A-list affair Cloud Atlas, which suffered backlash for featuring what many deemed yellowface.) "There's a general trend within Hollywood to oversimplify race," says Avi Santo, co-creator of Flow: A Critical Forum on Television and Media Culture. "Even though Hollywood likes to pat itself on the back for having abandoned blackface in the 1920s, when it comes to other ethnic groups, particularly Native Americans, there's no shortage of hiring people of different racial origins to portray those roles."
While Depp has said in interviews that he has Native American ancestry, Sperb, and many others, don't feel that is enough to justify his playing the role of Tonto. Especially when Depp's portrayal is, as The Daily News' review said, cartoonish. “Whatever ancestry [Depp] has is not written into the role itself," Sperb says. "He's not drawing on it to play this character ... Tonto, historically, is a very problematic figure. The character itself is fraught with issues, and hiring a more appropriate actor, however you define that, may have mitigated that somewhat."
However, Lone Ranger is progressive in one sense — in this iteration, the story is told through Tonto's perspective (even if it seems likely that was simply a creative decision to pit A-lister Depp, and not Armie Hammer, in the starring role). "In The Lone Ranger narrative, Tonto's role is often subservient,” Santo says. “In the new movie, by telling the story from Tonto's perspective, it's attempting to change the power balance.”
In recent months, Disney has been hawking Tonto action figures, Lone Ranger “made by real Native Americans” belts, and soda cups bearing Tonto’s image, among other products, despite outrage from Native American groups who believe that the items are infantilizing their culture. “Disney is putting no more thought into merchandising this film than they did for Tonto’s portrayal,” Santo says. “They see Johnny Depp’s Tonto as bankable, and so they’ll merchandise it in any way they can… It’s not surprising, but is it wrong? Yeah.”
But, despite Disney’s efforts, casting Depp instead of an unknown didn’t actually bring in the box office success the studio thought was all but guaranteed. Of course, this may be due in part to the fact that The Lone Ranger is an old property, first introduced to the American public in a 1933 radio show. Even with a Native American actor in the role, chances are that Disney still would have struggled to make the film resonate with younger viewers. "I'm kind of surprised that they even brought back The Lone Ranger at all," Sperb says. "But Disney is starting to get to the bottom of the barrel in terms of being able to recycle existing properties."
Yet both Sperb and Santo believe that Disney, and any other companies that take on The Lone Ranger in the future, have the potential to become more racially conscious. “Disney is trying to become increasingly diverse, which is keeping with Hollywood trends in general,” Sperb says.
While none of Disney's upcoming projects are specifically noted for their diversity, they're also not highlighted for their political incorrectness — a big step for the company. Hopefully soon, the studio will announce films in production that focus on characters with ethnically diverse backgrounds, and cast actors in the roles who actually share that heritage. A few years down the line, when Disney inevitably re-boots The Lone Ranger franchise, maybe they'll even decide to cast a Native American in the lead. "The actual story of The Lone Ranger can lend itself quite nicely to starting a conversation on Native American culture," Santo says. "It's all about the execution."