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Does Depp's Tonto make audiences uncomfortable?

Published: Thursday, July 11 2013 7:05 p.m. MDT

Johnny Depp as Tonto in "The Lone Ranger."

Disney

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I haven’t seen “The Lone Ranger,” and it turns out I’m not alone. Disney is taking a huge bath on the masked man’s $250 million megaflop, and everyone’s trying to come up with explanations.

Is the movie too long? Yeah, probably. Is it too dark for young children? Well, considering they broach the subject of cannibalism, I would think so. What about the fact that nobody in the target audience has any living memory of the iconic television series that aired its last original episode well over half a century ago? Certainly that’s a problem, but it’s not an insurmountable one.

For decades, there hadn’t been any successful pirates movies, either, and then Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski brought Captain Jack Sparrow to the silver screen. If they could fashion a hit out of an antiquated theme park ride, why can’t they do the same thing for the guy with “William Tell Overture” theme music?

I submit that the answer is simpler than many would have you believe.

The problem is Tonto.

Critics have complained about Depp’s casting as the Lone Ranger’s sidekick, and many have dismissed his performance as too eccentric and scattered. But eccentric and scattered have worked well for Depp in the past — see Jack Sparrow, above — so I’m inclined to think the problem is the role, not the actor.

I faced a similar dilemma back in 2002 when I directed the musical “Annie Get Your Gun” for the Tuacahn Center for the Arts. That show features a Tonto-esque comic relief character — Chief Sitting Bull, a real-life companion of Annie Oakley as she toured the country with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.

“Annie Get Your Gun” features some of Irving Berlin’s most singable and familiar tunes. But it hasn’t been revived often because of its outdated and, at times, outright racist portrayal of Native Americans, all of whom, like Tonto, can’t speak in complete sentences. When the show was brought back to Broadway with Bernadette Peters back in 1999, the book was completely rewritten to modernize the casual bigotry that had infested the original version.

At Tuacahn, we didn’t have the rights to the new script, so we had to work around the old one. I attempted to show that Sitting Bull was the smartest guy in the room, even though he tended to neglect proper verb usage. The alternative would have been to completely rewrite the character’s dialogue, but, even overlooking the illegality of altering the play, that would present other problems, too. Historically, Native Americans were woefully mistreated, and, in learning a second language, they probably did employ the Tonto-style pidgin speech that is so offensive to modern audiences.

So what do you do?

It’s the same issue with every adaptation of “Huckleberry Finn,” a novel that uses the most egregious racial slur in the English language on every single page. In a movie or a musical version, do you change that word to something more genteel and misrepresent history? Or do you make every audience member wince every time they hear a word they would never allow their children to say?

Whichever decision you make will drive some people away.

I don’t think there’s been any “Boycott Tonto” movement, but I do think that nobody wants to be placed in an awkward situation that might call into question their racial sensitivity. Should I be offended that a white actor is playing Tonto? Should I be embarrassed if I think he’s funny? Or how about I just don’t worry about it and skip the whole thing?

It’s the answer to that last question leads to a quarter-billion-dollar flop.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.

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