As The Lone Ranger heads for the big screen this summer, many Native Americans are questioning Disney’s campaign to court their approval. They believe that the studio’s public relations gestures mask the real issues of the marketing and identity of indigenous people.
The movie, which stars Johnny Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger, will hit theaters July 3. Depp has enjoyed a long relationship with the film’s director Gore Verbinski and its producer Jerry Bruckheimer through Disney’s record-breaking Pirates of the Caribbean series. The megastar is also one of The Lone Ranger’s executive producers, and his production company Infinitum Nihil (Latin for “Infinite Nothing”) was involved with the picture.
But Depp’s claims of Cherokee heritage (put forth in 2002 on Inside the Actors’ Studio, although in 2011 speaking to Entertainment Weekly he added “or maybe Creek”) along with his streaked black-and-white painted face and a stuffed crow perched atop his head have caused many to cry foul. Still, others say that Disney—which has a long history of working with Native Americans—is not adequately addressing their issues.
For his part, Depp told MTV.com that the film is “an opportunity for me to salute Native Americans.” The actor has said he hopes to fix years of Indian misrepresentations in Hollywood and has repeatedly stated that his great grandmother had mostly Cherokee blood.
But Native American leaders and educators are not buying it. They question Depp’s claims of Cherokee heritage, particularly the studio’s attempt to keep it ambiguous.
“Disney relies upon the ignorance of the public to allow that ambiguity to exist,” says Hanay Geiogamah, Professor of Theater at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. Geiogamah (Kiowa/Delaware) was a consultant for Disney’s Pocahontas and served as producer and co-producer for TBS’ The Native Americans: Behind the Legends, Beyond the Myths aired in the 1990s.
“If Depp had any legitimate blood of any tribe, Disney would definitely have all the substantial proof of that already. It’s not that hard to establish tribal connections,” Geiogamah says.
Richard Allen, Policy Analyst for the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, agrees. He says that many celebrities have claimed Cherokee heritage—often based upon family stories they’ve heard—but like Depp they never try to verify it. “They all tell me they have high cheekbones,” Allen says.
Geiogomah believes that because so few roles in Hollywood go to Native American actors, Disney’s big-budget movie is a “missed opportunity.” Depp could have played the Lone Ranger and instead promoted a younger Indian actor to play Tonto, he points out. After all, Canadian Mohawk actor Jay Silverheels portrayed the character in the 1950s TV series.
“Now they re-introduce Tonto with a non-Indian. So can you call that progress?” Geiogamah asks.
Instead, he worries that Disney’s Tonto feeds into non-Native expectations of Indians frozen in a historic time frame. “That costume ends up making us look like a bunch of oddballs with dead birds on our heads,” Geiogamah says.
by Scot Nakagawa
Okay, I know this subject has been beat to death but I need to go there one more time. Why? Because Paula Deen’s crying, pleading, borderline belligerent I is what I is, and I’m not changing play for forgiveness mirrors the way that too many white people react to accusations of racism. And that reaction is no small thing. It’s one of the obstacles to ending interpersonal racism which, as we know, is the justification for institutional racism and the perpetuation of racial inequality.
So, for white people who want to be good allies, here are five things not to do when accused of racism:
1. Cry. By crying, you make the problem all about you. You know, like you’re such a good and sensitive person that no one was hurt by your racism more than you were. Nice try, but in order to believe that, we first have to minimize the damage that’s done by racism, and that kind of undermines the whole idea that you’re genuinely sorry about anything except how you’re being treated as a result of your racist behavior.
2. Trot out your (insert racial minority group here) friends. This is an all too common way of deflecting the accusation without just admitting to the racist act. And, it’s bound to backfire, because instead of being an excuse, it only demonstrates your racism by reducing your friend to her/his race and worse, into an object, specifically a shield, to protect you from having to admit to racism.
3. Blame your age or upbringing. If your age is the problem, it implicates everyone else in your age group in your act of racism, and that’s not a fair thing to do to them in order to protect you. It also blames your racist act on your mother, your father, your teachers, the social climate in the town you grew up in, and every other person or condition that influenced you except, of course, you, the person who had a choice. As history shows us, not everyone was a racist at any time in our history. In every age, every person had and continues to have the ability to choose against racism.
4. Justify racist acts in certain circumstances as in, it’s okay to turn into a racist if someone is holding a gun to your head. If you manage to hold in your racism when you’re at your best, but react to fear or anger by immediately turning to racism, you’re a racist. In fact, fear and anger are at the very heart of racism.
But, while avoiding the four things listed above will probably keep you out of trouble, they don’t actually address your racism. So, if you’re truly just an accidental racist who sincerely wants to make amends, simply admit to it, take what you have coming to you, learn from it, and do something to make a positive difference.
And that brings me to the 5th thing you ought not do when accused of racism. Dodge. Because what distinguishes the accidental racist from an intentional one is the willingness to simply own up to your accidents and make amends.