‘The Lone Ranger’: Disney’s Make-Good to Native Americans

Bryan Enk
Movie TalkApril 10, 2013

Have you noticed that there has been (rather surprisingly) very little public outrage over Johnny Depp being cast as Tonto in "The Lone Ranger"? That's because Disney, in true Tonto style, head it off at the pass.

Depp plays the Ranger's Native American partner in the upcoming multi-million dollar extravaganza that reunites the superstar with his "Pirates of the Caribbean" director (for the first three installments, anyway), Gore Verbinski. Disney wants "The Lone Ranger" to follow in the footsteps of "Pirates" and become a major franchise for the studio, a mission that included making sure that Depp's casting didn't offend the Native American community.

Disney, as always, played it smart and savvy. The studio -- and Depp -- embarked on a broad outreach program early in pre-production, courting Native American approval long before cameras rolled by having several Native American leaders involved in the script's development. During filming, Depp -- who has identified himself of being of Native American ancestry -- was adopted into the Comanche Nation via a private ceremony in the presence of then-tribal chairman Johnny Wauqua. Disney even had local Navajo elders perform a Navajo blessing before production commenced in Monument Valley, and LaDonna Harris, a leader of the Americans For Indian Opportunity, was invited on set. The good relations continued after production wrapped, with Depp flying to Lawton, Oklahoma to join "his people" at the Comanche Nation Fair.

Disney has also created a character worthy of all of this attention and approval. The Tonto of the 1950s television show of spoke broken English and lacked character depth, serving as little more than an amusing sidekick to the heroic Ranger. Depp's Tonto is claimed to be an authentic portrayal of the character's rich Comanche heritage.

Chris Eyre, the Native American director of "Smoke Signals" and TV's "Freedom Riders," approves of Disney's approach. "I'm not looking to this movie to be the Native 'Schindler's List,'" says Eyre. "But I completely respect Johnny Depp for making this movie happen and for him to try and rewrite Tonto for a new generation."

With this revisionist take on Tonto, Disney hopes to not only wipe away the insensitivity of the old "Lone Ranger" television show but also its own controversial past regarding Native American characters. The studio's 1995 animated feature, "Pocohontas," was criticized for fostering negative stereotypes of Native Americans, particularly through one of the film's key songs, "Savages."

We'll have to see if all of these good intentions translate into box office dollars. "The Lone Ranger" certainly has the potential to be a "Pirates"-sized hit (though, let's face it, it's highly unlikely) -- or it could be a gigantic flop of "Wild Wild West" proportions. The film hits theaters on July 3.

See the trailer for 'The Lone Ranger':