This story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When Disney released the animated musical Pocahontas in 1995, the song "Savages" was criticized as fostering negative stereotypes about Native Americans. In an effort to break from that culturally insensitive past, Disney has embarked on a broad outreach program in advance of its July 3 tentpole The Lone Ranger.
The film stars Johnny Depp as Tonto -- a character who during his 1950s TV run spoke in broken English and lacked dimension. But the new Tonto enjoys a rich backstory, including an authentic portrayal of his Comanche heritage. Disney and Depp quietly courted Native American approval long before cameras rolled on the $250 million Gore Verbinski film. American Indian leaders were brought on during the script stage and were present throughout production.
During filming, Depp, who has identified himself as being of Native American ancestry, was ceremonially adopted into the Comanche Nation by way of a private ceremony in the presence of then-tribal chairman Johnny Wauqua. Local Navajo elders performed a Navajo Blessing before shooting in Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah state line, and LaDonna Harris, a social activist known for her leadership of the Americans for Indian Opportunity, was invited on set.
After production wrapped, Depp even flew to Lawton, Okla., to participate in the Comanche Nation Fair. Going back to Westerns, Hollywood often has portrayed Native Americans as uncivilized and violent. But a Disney insider says Lone Ranger feedback from Native American groups has been overwhelmingly positive.
For Chris Eyre, the highest-profile Native American director working in show business, Disney's move is a welcome change. "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."