Babs Bunny (brucelynn) wrote in ohnotheydidnt,
Babs Bunny

Native Americans on film: 'Well, my friend, looks like we're surrounded'

The New Mexico film industry is having a hard time as it is. With the news that Sony Imageworks is packing up its visual effects office in Albuquerque this summer because of the state’s change of heart regarding the industry’s support, it’s hard to criticize a big budget picture setting up shop in the state.

As it is, Disney’s “Tonto and The Lone Ranger” almost didn’t make it this far. A gargantuan budget was nixed by Disney suits at first, but, after a significant bit of slashing, the greenlight was lit and local film professionals are now doing a happy dance, according to media reports. The production is underway and working toward a May 13, 2013 release date, hopefully employing lots of grateful New Mexicans.

So, what’s the problem?

Back in the 1950s when “The Lone Ranger” (minus the name ‘Tonto’ in the title) hit TV screens, little kids all over the nation ran around in cowboy hats and masks riding stick ponies emulating their hero. Few, however, donned the headband, fringed outfit and feather to play Tonto, played by Jay Silverheels (Mohawk), because back then, Indians were still considered the bad guys and the idea that one them could be considered a friend and ally just didn’t ring true.
Down deep, though, despite that one baby step forward, the image of Native Americans in popular media has been maintained as a stereotype that seems impossible to destroy. Aside from the disparaging portrayals as either murderous savages or mystical shamans (see last year’s “Cowboys and Aliens” — also shot in New Mexico), Indians in the media are rarely shown without some explanation for why they should be included in the script. Which brings us to Johnny Depp’s “Tonto” (which, in Spanish, means “fool,” in case you didn’t know).

Depp has said in media reports that his portrayal and “Pirates of the Caribbean” director Gore Verbinski’s take on the “Hi-yo, Silver!” dude is planned to take a satirical slant, painting Tonto into the foreground with Armie Hammer’s portrayal of the Lone Ranger as a supporting role. Also, Depp has claimed that his grandmother was Cherokee, which kind of gets him off the hook for giving-in to the old white-guy-playing-an-Indian Hollywood truism. Is it possible that perhaps a sad chapter in Native American film history might be facing a turnaround?

Maybe, but after all is said and done, this is still a cartoon of Native culture that will likely not make a dent in the erroneous Hollywood image or make Native people proud of the way they are portrayed.

All films made under a studio’s direction are commercial endeavors. They are made by people whose primary motive is to fashion a product that will make money. “Creativity,” in this respect, is broken down into finite elements that can be plugged into any given story to provide the right pattern of escalating crisis that lead to a satisfying resolution. As such, lofty ideals regarding the reversal of Native stereotypes take a backseat to the need to put entertainment and commerce first.

Why? Because, big budget movies are made for an audience that focus groups have defined as possessing certain traits. To make the most money, you shape your project to appeal to the most people, which is to say this film will not be made for Indians or even with their sensibilities genuinely in mind.

Ultimately, this movie, like most of its ilk, will find itself standing alone circled by angry Indians with The Lone Ranger saying to Tonto, “Well, my friend, looks like we’re surrounded.”

I’m sure you already know the punchline to that one.


Native American actor appreciation post imo
Tags: film, johnny depp, race / racism

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