Disney's latest blockbuster, "The Lone Ranger," treads on some circumspect ground when it comes to the treatment of Native Americans on film. The movie does much to address many of the rampantly stereotypical representations that the Western genre provided on-screen regarding Aboriginal culture, yet for some, this work is further evidence of how much further we have to go. While I felt that the film was quite interesting in the way it toyed with the saddlebags of the genre, others were far less generous.
One person who with strong feelings about the film is Jesse Wente, an integral part of Canada's film elite. Jesse serves as Head of Film Programmes at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox and is (obviously) a big part of the Toronto Film Festival. He's been a longstanding critic on CBC, and has done numerous scholarly presentations on film subjects. He also happens to be of Ojibway descent, and has spoken often and eloquently about the representation of Native culture on-screen, including being a featured part of documentary "Real Injun," which explored these issues.
After a brief back-and-forth with Wente on Twitter, it was clear that 140 characters wouldn't be enough to contain a discussion of these topics. Here's the first of a two-part exclusive interview with Mr. Wente from his office in Toronto.
Moviefone: Let's talk about the historical Tonto first -- how was Tonto used, and how, if at all, do you think he was used differently in this film?
Jesse Wente: Historically, if we go back to the original Tonto in the '30s, it's not dissimilar to the Jay Silverheels portrayal on the TV show, which I think most people associate with the Tonto character. The story is the same [as the Johnny Depp version], Tonto does save the Lone Ranger from the slaughter, so the origin of the partnership is the same. Tonto is used as comic relief in both instances, but in the  version, he's a much more proactive character. Tonto was always the true sidekick, he never instigated anything, he was always there to applaud or have a backhanded compliment for the Lone Ranger.
I think in the Depp version (or the Verbinski version), Tonto is actually the driver of the action in the movie, which is an interesting inversion. He's technically more heroic and courageous and brave than the Lone Ranger is, which of course is different from the original. It's not so much that Tonto wasn't brave, it's just that the Lone Ranger was very much front and centre as the leader of the action.
Certainly the villains in the movie are far more progressive. We see the slaughter of innocents, we see a false war occur. All of these things that didn't necessarily occur in serial, or if they had, it would have been with a moustache-twirling villain at the back end. Tonto is much less of a "yes" man than he would have been originally, less of a sycophant. That's not uninteresting. That's something to be thankful for in terms of progress, but I would point out that it's not an inversion that hasn't already cinematically taken place without the character ever being Tonto. If you saw "The Outlaw Josey Wales," you saw a performance by Chief Dan George in a not dissimilar dynamic. You have the white action hero, though with Eastwood it's far more stoic than the Lone Ranger, and you have the Indian side character. The performance by the First Nations character is very Depp-y, similar to what Depp is trying to do here. ["Wales" is] much less action-oriented because Chief Dan George was already elderly by that time, but you had the sense of humour, the undercurrent of disrupting the traditional portrayals with very sly humour.
I think "Wales" is ultimately more progressive to me than "The Lone Ranger," which actually feels regressive. As much as you want to applaud the inversion of all of these dynamics in "The Lone Ranger," it's still 30 years past [when it was first done]. Depp himself has been in a movie, "Deadman," that did very similar things, and in fact inverted the dynamic to make him almost a sidekick to the First Nations character.
Johnny Depp's Most Eccentric Roles (Interview Continues After Slideshow!)
Gallery | Johnny Depp's Most Eccentric Roles
Regardless of the perception of the regressive/progressive elements, what is clear is that the filmmakers have gone out of their way to address these issues both within the film and during production. Johnny Depp was the driving force of bringing the story to the screen, and he made it clear he wanted Tonto to be at the centre of the action. He wanted to play around with a beloved character...
Beloved by whom?
Ah, that's a very interesting question. Who under the age of 70 loves Tonto?
The filmmakers have gone out of their way to combat the initial reticence that this project is going to encounter. For example , Johnny Depp's been adopted formally as a member of the Comanche tribe, for whatever that's worth to the larger discussion.
I think it's worth marketing, [that's] what it's worth.
But according to the Albuquerque Comanche, it's an absolutely legitimate way of him being included, membership in the tribe. It also raises the notion of what constitutes "Native," with bloodline and status allocation making the politics even more difficult. From a film point of view, how overtly Aboriginal does Johnny Depp ancestry have to be in order to do this character justice?
Listen, First Nations people are not immune to movie stardom and all of these kinds of things. It's fine, they chose to do that. Does that somehow excuse what happens? No.
Ultimately, what's clear for me, between watching this movie and "Deadman" is perhaps we're giving too much authorial control to Depp, who is an actor with great intentions. When he starred in a Jim Jarmusch movie, he starred in a very progressive film about First Nations people, and when he starred in a different person's movie, [it's regressive]. Ultimately, whose feet do you lay these sorts of issues at? ["Deadman" director Jim] Jarmusch is an individual artist who ultimately had largely creative control over it, and ["Lone Ranger" director Gore] Verbinski's made craploads of money for Disney, so I'm sure there's an element of control, but it's also a different machine at work. I think they jumped through a lot of hoops to try to make this all good. The ultimate issues I have with the movie are ones that I'm not sure you can research out of the film. You could have made him put on authentic clothing if you're going to say that he's part of the Comanche tribe and you're not just going to make something up.
Their argument is that he's wearing authentic clothing with the bird on the head. All of those elements that seem over-the-top and theatrical are derived from historical sources.
But Depp clearly claims he based it on a painting that was fictional.
But that argument has already happened publicly, and the Native participants and consultants in the film, the consultants on the film say that this is authentic, and there are stories that within their populace that this was something that was worn. For some the thing that seems most over-the-top and Hollywood, the thing that's broadly comic, is as Depp he feeds the dead bird.
Oh, I don't have an issue with the feeding of the bird.
But some did. And some see it as somehow laughing at the "stupid Red Man" feeding the inanimate object.
I didn't read it as stupid. I read it as he's [possibly] crazy, which they describe him as at one point. Characters of all ethnicities are allowed to be nuts on screen, no one's going to claim ownership over that. I can't ultimately speak to the motivations of consultants on movies and folks who want to do it. My understanding of it is that it's not a particularly authentic costume. The "Wendigo" [Ed Note: a plot point in the film] is not a story told among First Nations people in the South, it's a Northern story. It's a story I heard when I was a child, it's a story that my [Ojibway] people have been telling for many years. The origins of that story are actually about conserving food for the winter, it's about making sure that when you have bounty in the summer, you conserve for the Winter or else the Wendigo gets hungry.
A lot of traditional stories relate directly to the way people lived their lives. I'm sure the consultants are going to claim that shape-shifters are represented in all cultures, including many that are not indigenous, which is true. All cultures have some sort of tradition around shape-shifters, whether it's the Golem, so sure, they can claim it. But for where I'm coming from, the term Wendigo is not something that would have shown up in Texas in the 1840s. And the issue that I ultimately have with all of that is that it reiterates some of the issues that historical Westerns have had in terms of positioning First Nations people in context.
The reductive nature of those stories or those films has always been to reduce First Nations people to Plains Indians who speak one language, if any that's actually discernible at all. They all have the same sort of myths, they're vanished. For me, some of that stuff is actually unconscious, I wouldn't exactly say that the filmmakers of that time were consciously saying, yes, we all know there's Sioux and there's Comanche and there's Apache, but we're consciously going to just mix them into one. They were doing it to tell their story in the cleanest way they felt possible.
That doesn't ultimately remove the fact that because of the nature of the Western, its ties to the idea of nationhood, particularly in the U.S., but not totally distant from Canada. These stories were, with Manifest Destiny, fundamental nation building [myths] for the U.S. If you think about the classic era of the Western, from the early '30s to the '50s, it came when the States was still a very young country and still needed to tell itself the story of its own origins, and this was the story it told. Unfortunately, it was told at the expense of the first inhabitants of this land because it altered the history, the truth of what happened. To me this film recalls a lot of those issues.
You're again going to present to millions of people worldwide this uniform view. I get it, we're all supposed to suspend disbelief and everything, which would be fine if we weren't already at a 100-year history of falsehoods being presented that have greatly hurt the dialogue around much larger social and political issues facing First Nations people. People have bought into the image they see in movies. They're extremely powerful in terms of teaching people stuff about what they know around the world, and our education system at the same time has had a colossal failure in terms of actually properly educating people about what has happened. There are still, to this day, people on both sides of the border in North America that live in fundamentally dire circumstances that are less than standard. They call it Third World -- I don't like that term, but you know what I mean -- because of their race. Whether it's this generation that inflicted that upon them is actually irrelevant. It's a historical thing. This reality is one of the reasons I feel we can't ever fix those issues. We're stuck with a portrayal that has persisted and endured for 100 years now that we keep allowing popular culture to regurgitate. All of this is going on and we're having these great discussions about "The Lone Ranger" while everyone is celebrating a "Blackhawks" Stanley Cup win. No one mentions it, that's largely not talked about, yet they're all connected.
You can't have a culture that reduces a people to mascots and allows bizarre portrayals in movies and think that at the same time you're going to solve that community's social crises. You've relegated them to the past or to the sideshow tent of history, not because you intended to do that when you made a movie, but it's a result of the history of this continent which means that we're just reinforcing all of that.
As counterargument, at least in the context of this film, Tonto is presented quite sardonically as "The Noble Savage." It's clearly done purposely to let you know that this film is well aware of the confrontation. This may not be the mechanism for doing that, but I felt the film was actually quite subversive. It may not have checked nearly as many boxes as it should have, but I thought Depp's portrayal was very sensitive to these very issues. When the Natives charge the army and are slaughtered, that's when I realized that this film was actually not going to do some weird Hollywood sugar-coating. So for me, seeing the film, I had actually the opposite reaction.
But doesn't that reinforce the nobility of it? Does it not undermine the notion that First Nations people were capable of winning the war?
But the First Nations people within this did not win this war.
They did not, but again, it's one of those things where you have a firing line. They've set up a firing line that's very obvious to the Chiefs and the warriors set up on the hill crest, they have the upper ground. They charge down the hill into a firing line. I guess what I would say is that for me that's meant to show some sort of nobility, but at the same time it suggests that nobility with some sort of primitive idea of how one would engage in combat.
I don't disagree. First Nations people were slaughtered en masse by machine guns and all sorts of elements. They were also the first "outside" nation to defeat America on the field of battle. The British and others had tried. I get what you're saying, and the intent is there, I just wonder what it really is reinforcing. It's the same way I felt around "Avatar" or even "Dances with Wolves." They're all really well-intended, they really intend to do something else. The issue, and it's a difficult one to reconcile, it that these movies are ultimately always made from the outside. The gaze is always a colonial gaze. What does that mean that even in the good intentions, by staging the scene exactly the way they did, do they perhaps not unconsciously reinforce a certain colonial opinion of what happened in North America? I think there's lots of good intentions, and I understand the response, and lots of people will see it and they'll react to it.
The discussion continues over on Part 2.
"The Lone Ranger" opens in theatres on July 3.