In the second part of our conversation with Jesse Wente, Head of Film Programmes at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox, we continue to discuss "The Lone Ranger" and the context in which the film exists, both in terms of representation of Native culture as well as the film's draw as a mostly forgotten property. We begin by discussing the intended subversion that Johnny Depp's portrayal of Tonto is meant to ascribe to the traditional Lone Ranger myth.
*** Some Spoilers Below!
Moviefone: When you first made the comments about this on Twitter, and obviously you speak from a great deal of learning on this, my initial reaction was that Tonto's a bit like Steve Martin in "The Jerk," a highly self-aware clownish performance challenging notions of race. By pointing out the surreal nature of it all they're making a greater point, and if that can be done in a Hollywood film. For me it works better in Lone Ranger than it does in "Avatar," or even "Dances With Wolves," because those films are so serious and so polemical. With "The Lone Ranger," through humour, you can conceivably get to greater truths.
Jesse Wente: There's something to be said about that. Whether the actor portraying the person is indigenous or not is beside the point, there is something about the indigenous hero being on screen. That's not an irrelevant moment.
And the fact that he goes through an actual hero's journey. The reason he's comic is not that he's Indian or Native. He's a dumbass.
Well, except for the speech pattern, they do some things, the crow, because he's Native. The fact that he listens to the Earth, maybe that's because he's crazy, maybe that's because he's Native. Can he talk to the horse? Is he Native or is he a crazy guy? Not all uninteresting. Might all be problematic, depending on how many layers you want to strip away from it.
I was a little surprised that there were any mystical elements to it, because usually that's a big no-no nowadays. I didn't mind it because in my mind the horse was mystical, not necessarily Tonto, and I do like to suspend some disbelief. I'm in for that.
For me, there's a difference between Tonto being the Stepin Fetchit-like character of the 1930s versus a Kato-like character from the '60s. I know I'm being weird with the timeline here, but Kato really became, particularly within the Asian community, a sidekick who was a bigger star than the lead.
But he was the star, though.
Yet the show was "The Green Hornet," and Kato was explicitly the sidekick, yet completely stole the show. As egregious as that film's remake was, they played upon this conceit as well.
Sure, but Bruce Lee was physically impressive. He stood out. He was the star of the show because he was a star. It's not against Jay Silverheels that he wasn't the star, but when you're as physically gifted and doing things that are spectacular as Bruce Lee was doing on that show, [things change].
I get what you're saying, but I would also say that that was almost an era later. Kato came out in the '60s, when there was a rapidly changing movement towards this. Tonto was a product of the '30s, '40s and '50s.
So Tonto has never been heroic?
No, he was never the hero of the show. I don't think the non-indigenous population thought that Tonto was the hero, I think they loved the Lone Ranger. He was the white hat, ultimately. Tonto never got to wear the white hat. I don't think indigenous people liked Tonto either. Quite frankly, Jay Silverheels didn't like Tonto and spent much of his career after playing the character trying to address some of the issues that he felt came out of that portrayal. So I would say that no one loved Tonto. I think that if you're going to make a Western, you might as well make one that has a name that's at least known. It's along the same lines as "John Carter of Mars," turning to intellectual property that's 70 years old. There hasn't been a Lone Ranger movie in, what, 50 years? I think there was maybe one in 1983 [Ed. Note: 1981's "The Legend of the Lone Ranger"], but that's a long-ass time ago. So who cares?
Who was clamouring for the Lone Ranger?
Who was clamouring for John Carter? No one. No one knows the book, everyone who cherished it is no longer a movie-going consumer. If the goal of Depp was to have a positive portrayal for First Nations kids to look up to on the "rez," which he stated, there are many true indigenous heroes that have never had a proper cinematic portrayal of them, who have stories as action-packed and cinematic as anything Verbinski was going to dream up in this movie. Where's the "Let's make the Crazy Horse movie!" or "Let's make the Sitting Bull movie!"
Ultimately, we've drawn on a fictional character who has deep historical problems and I don't know how even in a call-and-response cinematic world you ever think you're actually going to undo the issues of Tonto by bringing Tonto back.
Is it possible that within the context of a straight, mainstream, bubblegum summer film, that's actually more effective at raising some of these issues than if he had done something slightly more seriously sombre like, say, a "Sitting Bull" epic?
Ultimately the issue is the baggage that comes with anything called "The Lone Ranger." By choosing to do this story, you've set yourself in a larger historical cinematic context which I find it difficult to remove the film from, because it's drawing on it. If you're going to make a "high-ho Silver!" joke, that's drawing on or acknowledging that there was a previous version of this. I have to consider it within the larger scope.
In the end, I think there's a belief that it's [a film] aware of itself. I think there's lots of good intentions spread all over the screen in the movie, but ultimately it's actually unaware of the context it's fitting into.
For me, Graham Greene rescuing kids in "Die Hard 3" is the "Kato moment." He saves the kids while Bruce Willis is off doing whatever he's doing with Sam Jackson. There's never any mention of why there's a First Nations cop in the middle of New York jumping over fences to save the kids. Granted I was much younger then, but that was actually a far more meaningful moment in cinema history in terms of, "Holy s--t, there's an Indian guy doing a big blockbuster movie!," literally saving the day, totally unacknowledged.
Which is part of why they've gone out of their way to ascribe lineage to [Depp], while that opens up a whole other can of worms.
Absolutely, and I'm not going to get into a blood quantum or blood debate about it, because frankly I think that's wrapped up in a whole lot of bulls--t as well. The fact that I carry a status card as some mechanics of the government has nothing to do with my family or my rights to land or anything like that. That's the function of the stupid government. No one had to tell my grandmother that she was an Indian, and I don't need a card to tell me that I'm one either. I understand what they're all doing and that is a different sort of matter.
It's almost like by them even acknowledging that this could be an issue, it's reinforcing the point.
It's sort of like if Robert Downey Jr. did blackface and then said my great, great, great, grandmother was black, what difference would that have made? And that's a question. I'm not offering any answers, I'm just saying that's the equivalent of what we're saying.
If there's something to be said about this type of thing, by adhering strictly to, by subverting the traditional Western myth, it may very well open up this kind of dialogue. Potentially, there will be those viewers that will watch it and have this very conversation and start seeking out literature, film, that does it from a different perspective.
Man, I wish. Hollywood's been trying to undo its past in terms of this since the moment Sacheen Littlefeather stepped off that stage [at the Oscars in 1973]. There's no more shameful moment in Hollywood history than that particular one. That really did call them all out on the carpet and say "You're all assholes, what are you going to do about it?!" It's no coincidence that the history of revisionist Westerns began around that time.
Disney didn't want this conversation [about "The Lone Ranger"] -- that's why they went through such great pains from their vantage point to vet this through the community so this wouldn't happen. I'm sure that's why James Cameron had traditional indigenous speakers on the crew of "Avatar." Yet none of those have ever spurred the dialogue we're talking about. Maybe that will be Johnny Depp's true contribution, that he'll spur some kind of dialogue around this and people will start to rethink their position. I hope that's true. In the very depths of my soul, I believe movies have that power. I just wonder if the larger culture is interested or prepared to have this actual discussion. Historically, we haven't been [prepared] as a country. One of the great historical issues I have is that Canada and the U.S., as this whole continent, still does not want to come to terms with its historical past. We haven't come to the moment New Zealand did so many years ago when they understood that it's an indigenous country, amd other people just happen to be living there.
Canada seems very reluctant to come to what is, quite frankly, an inevitable conclusion: this is an indigenous country. Everyone else is a visitor, everyone is welcome, but we have to, in order to have a larger dialogue and actually overcome some of the larger problems, you need the larger culture to embrace this. It's very interesting, watching marriage laws get struck down in the U.S. and all these equality struggles, in large part because the over culture has decided that they're embracing it. Gay marriage ultimately wouldn't have happened just because gay people wanted it -- the larger culture ultimately had to agree that this was what needed to happen. Just like the larger culture had to agree that segregation was wrong and they had to stop it.
The larger culture has not come to the same conclusion with First Nations people. It just hasn't. You can't tell me that it has when we're allowing the Redskins to play. When you still have great inequities in terms of living conditions and access to fundamental human rights, until we arrive at that point, it's really difficult. Maybe this movie is it. I honestly think it's going to come far more likely, unfortunately, through protest or disaster, which is usually the way these things work. Maybe wealth, which is another thing. "The Lone Ranger" is far from isolated, that's the depressing thing. We see Victoria's Secret models donning headdresses, we see this happening all of the time. For indigenous people it's a reminder that we're still relegated to non-entities. No one would stand for some of this to occur about other groups. Can you imagine? I can't.
No one in Hollywood would accept blackface. The most recent example would be Robert Downey Jr. [in "Tropic Thunder"], but they did it in a way that allowed him to say, "I was playing an actor doing blackface." No one would allow that, yet here we are, talking about a $200 million movie with one of the biggest movie stars in the world, [and] that's what they're doing.
It looked pretty. It was beautifully shot.
Yeah, I thought it looked quite terrible! It was terribly constructed. Within five minutes there was an extended [sequence with] all of those sidekicks having to deliver this long verbal exposition. To me it just felt torturous, I felt it was horribly constructed and executed. The most interesting part of the movie for me was the framing device, which we just talked about, [Tonto] in the sideshow as the Noble Savage. It felt totally tacked on, like something they did later when he was already too far gone and they needed something to align it with.
It's interesting because real First Nations Chiefs rode in Wild West shows. They would not have stood in a curio sideshow next to the bearded lady, but they did ride in the Old West shows. Sitting Bull rode in Wild West shows where he would reenact battles that had been won for a paying audience. Those of course were the first moving images [of Natives] ever filmed, those performers from the Wild West shows. I don't know if those folks are clued in to that, but I thought that was an interesting connection.
I'm still trying to figure out what I think about the end because he puts on the modern clothes and then disappears. The reactionary part of me would say the whole idea of the vanishing Indian is what colonialism is all about. To make them vanish is very much the stated goal of the Canadian government, it's in the Indian Act. It has proven amazingly effective, as people like me so evidently prove every day. There's part of me that was interested in that notion, but the fact that he got dressed beforehand was an interesting touch because it placed him in the present of the movie. So he got out of his traditional dress and got into a suit with a bowler hat or something like that and walks out.
Did you stay for the credits?
I didn't. Did something happen?
Yeah. After the credits roll, the entirely of the credits, it's him walking out into the desert. Alone.
Oh, so you see him after that?
You see him after that in the middle of the desert.
In modern clothes?
In the modern clothes, walking off into the distance, and that's all he's doing. That's the last image.
I wish I had seen it. That's too bad.
It's a very melancholic shot of him.
I was far more fascinated when he just disappeared. The walking solemnly into the distance is a classic; it reminds me of so many classic Western images. There was a movie starring Wes Studi called "Geronimo: An American Legend" and it ended on a not dissimilar shot of Geronimo on a train disappearing into the desert, into the distance.
To me, that's more problematic. Again to me it suggests that it's gone, that First Nations people are part of a rather conveniently encapsulated past. When he just vanished, what I thought was that you could have assumed that maybe none of the exchange with the little kid even happened. Maybe the little kid's a total spaz and is having some sort of hallucination. More interesting is the idea that he put on his hat and left work and went home, he vanished from the false story of standing beside that board and put on his bowler hat and went home, which to me suggests that First Nations people are still living. To have him walk off into the desert solemnly suggests all sorts of other things that I'm more uncomfortable with, actually. So I hate that they f--king did that with the credits!
Can you think of particular works that people might not know, that people should see?
"Dance me Outside" is certainly a very interesting movie, and I know almost everyone who worked on that film. [Director] Bruce McDonald comes from a very different tradition, he comes from a very Jarmusch-like mindset, where that story came from was a much different beast and the way the movie was made was very different. The level of consultation, given everything that was going on was way, way different. I think "Deadman" is certainly great. There's a great film called "Clearcut" that stars Graham Greene. It's a Canadian movie made in B.C. in the early '90s right after he did "Dances with Wolves." It's horrifically violent and he plays, well, I'll leave it up to you to see what he plays, but it's made by a non-indigenous guy, made in a very different way. He does interesting things with the character but for a very blunt purpose.
Ultimately, I would steer people towards more indigenous-made work than anything else. We have a fine tradition of it in Canada. There's a very interesting movie, "Mystery Road," that just opened the Sydney Film Festival, by a director named Ivan Sen. It'll play TIFF later this year. It's a big thriller with an aboriginal detective that has to solve this crime. It's a genre piece with indigenous people in central roles in it, a noir set in the outback. The direction it's coming from allows for a more fulfilling portrayal than others.
[Once] again, why The Lone Ranger? No one is saying "Let's remake Birth of a Nation!" because that's such a great f--king idea. Some of these movies should just be left for the history books.
Check out Part 1 of our Tonto discussion.
"The Lone Ranger" opens in theatres on July 3.