Johnny Depp knows that the racial politics of the Lone Ranger character Tonto are dicey, in general, especially when played by a white person like him, in particular. So to get out in front of such concerns, he's told Brian Hiatt in his Rolling Stone cover story that in director Gore Verbinski's reboot of the 1950s TV staple, Tonto is "no joke." Hence the makeup.
"First of all, I wouldn't fuck with someone with a dead bird on their head," Depp told the magazine. "Second of all, he's got the fucking paint on his face, which scares me."
That doesn't seem like the most eloquent of explanations, but it gets backing from Hiatt, who calls the film "impressively subversive, painting the United States Cavalry as the bad guys and the Comanche as the doomed heroes." For his part, Depp hopes Native American kids embrace his Tonto as a hero: "I wanted to maybe give some hope to kids on the reservations... They're living without running water and seeing problems with drugs and booze. But I wanted to be able to show these kids, 'Fuck that! You're still warriors, man.'"
All that said, it's not clear just how revisionist the film will be. In this Walt Disney version, which like their theme park adaptation Pirates of the Carribbean unites star Depp, director Verbinski, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Tonto is conceived as the mentor to Lone Ranger John Reid (played by Armie Hammer) not a sidekick. Still, he speaks in broken English, and has the burden of years of negative stereotype hanging over him. As the Associated Press's Felicia Fonseca reported back in May, there are some in the Native American who are skeptical about the film.
To head off those concerns Disney, which was the subject of criticism following its treatment of Native Americans in 1995's Pochahontas, "embarked on a broad outreach program" for the film, Tatiana Siegel and Pamela McClintock reported for The Hollywood Reporter back in April. Depp, who says he has Native American blood, adopted into the Comanche Nation, and Navajo elders performed a blessing on a shooting location. The film had a Comanche adviser, Fonseca, who approved Depp's head bird, and in an interview with Indian Country Today Native American actor Saginaw Grant said that "everything was done with a lot of respect." He added that he "encourage[s], especially our Native people, to come and watch it." Disney is selling tickets to the movie's premiere to benefit the American Indian College Fund.
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Without having seen the movie it's pretty impossible to know just how Depp's performance plays, but Disney and Depp are covering their bases.