In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Harvey Markowitz of Washington and Lee University discusses portrayal of Native Americans in Hollywood and a recent high-profile flop.
Harvey Markowitz is an assistant professor sociology and anthropology at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. His research examines the inter-relationships among American Indian religions, landscapes, cultures, histories, and identities. He recently co-edited the book Seeing Red: Hollywood’s Pixeled Skins.
Dr. Harvey Markowitz - Native Americans and Hollywood Films
Well before its opening in July, 2013, the Disney Studio’s 250 million dollar comic version of The Lone Ranger had already become the object of considerable buzz. One source of this stir was news that box office powerhouse Johnny Depp would be portraying Tonto, with the hunky but modestly credentialed Armi Hammer cast in the supposedly leading role of the masked man. However, much of the flap had less to do with this unexpected casting than with Depp’s Indian “get up,” particularly his heavily painted body and his crow (as in bird) headdress. This was not merely an updated version of your parents’ Tonto, but rather an anti-Tonto.
In fact, what Depp and company have given us is not only an anti-Tonto, but an anti-Lone Ranger. In one interview the star commented that he wanted “to [mess] around with the stereotype of the American Indian that has been laid out through…the history of cinema . . . especially Tonto as the sidekick, the Lone Ranger’s assistant.”* The result of his “messing around” is that The Lone Ranger is in every sense Tonto’s movie, dominated by American Indian values and ways of relating to the earth.
Another consequence of Depp’s reversals is that The Lone Ranger has proven to be a financial flop. Both the star and his team have blamed the roasting critics gave the movie for its poor showing. And, they are partially correct. But the deeper truth is that after a century of Hollywood movies that have depicted Indians as savage or noble satellites orbiting around white heroes, it is not surprising that most critics and the public would be confused or outraged by a film that ferociously turns this convention on its head. One can only hope that the The Lone Ranger did not die at the box office in vain.