Just in time for the birthday of the nation that was founded on the decimation of its native inhabitants, Johnny Depp leaps onto 3,700 theaters across the United States as Tonto, that mothballed stereotype of American Indians, in Disney's theatrical reboot of "The Lone Ranger."
Or not. Last year the president of the nonprofit group Americans for Indian Opportunity adopted Depp into her family and tribe as a gesture of good will. The film's Comanche consultant endorses the final product. Depp says his great-grandmother was Cherokee, or Creek, or something, and promised to "reinvent" the character of Tonto for 21st-century moviegoers.
So no big deal, right?
Yes and no, says Paul Chaat Smith, associate curator at the National Museum of the American Indian and author of "Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong."
"It's more important to us than it should be," he says. "I don't know what other minority group takes so personally or invests so much of their hopes in a commercial vehicle. I used to think it's a bad thing and I just wanted us to get over it and say, 'Christ, it's just a movie. Have fun or don't see it or whatever.' But it does then become a conversation -- the amount of calls the museum is getting about ["The Lone Ranger"], for example -- and therefore it's an opportunity to advance the conversation."
Volume and visibility are hallmarks of a summer blockbuster. So when an A-list movie star represents a people who still feel unseen and unheard by the rest of the country, does it matter that he's using that affected, halting Tonto accent?
How seriously do we ponder the kernels of truth (and fiction) inside the buttery popcorn?
"The bottom line is that Tonto is probably the only Indian that a lot of Americans are going to meet," says Theodore Van Alst, who directs Yale College's Native American Cultural Center and has studied the depiction of Indians in film.
Which is part of the reason that the first "Lone Ranger" publicity photos landed with a thud on the Internet when they were released more than a year ago. The consensus was that Depp's hair and makeup -- inspired by the work of a non-Native painter -- were a blend of stereotypes, and creepily derivative of his Captain Jack Sparrow from "Pirates of the Caribbean." Such images confine Indians to history or the imagination rather than establish them in day-to-day America, says Adrienne Keene, who has written critical pieces about the pre-release publicity of "The Lone Ranger" on her blog Native Appropriations.
"It starts to feel even more like blackface, more like a costume, like masking the race," says Keene, 27, a Harvard University Ph.D. student who's researching Natives and the college application process. "Even if the image had been authentic, I think it still would've made me uncomfortable. Because then it's 'authentic to what'? To what time period? To what community?"
From the earliest days of each medium, cinema and television cemented a certain characterization of Native Americans. Cecil DeMille directed three different versions of "The Squaw Man" -- about a Native woman who marries a British aristocrat and commits suicide -- between 1914 and 1931. John Ford's westerns depicted the American frontier as a manifest destiny for honorable white settlers in the '30s, '40s and '50s, while "The Lone Ranger" established the notion of the Indian as a sidekick, first on the radio in 1933 and then on TV from 1949 through 1957 with Jay Silverheels in the role of Tonto.
A half-century later, with blow-'em-up action producer Jerry Bruckheimer steering the project, Tonto isn't even played by a Native actor; one would argue that there aren't any who could carry a $200-million-plus movie and its inevitable sequels. Though Yale's Van Alst offers Adam Beach, star of 1998 independent movie "Smoke Signals" and Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers," as the likeliest candidate.
"There are very few popcorn movies where Native people are represented on-screen, [and] there's no contemporary portrayals," Van Alst says. "It's always 1890 and if you don't look like Graham Greene coming down the plains in full war bonnet, you're not a real Indian."
This "Lone Ranger" begins and ends in a flash-forward, with an elderly Tonto installed in a carnival diorama behind a sign that reads "The Noble Savage." Yet the rest of the movie clearly portrays the white man as the savage: Railroad barons violate treaties, prospectors seize land and pillage minerals, and the Indians shake their heads and try to minimize the damage and conflict.
"The creative choices made Tonto -- one of the most famous sidekicks in the history of sidekicks -- the center of the movie, and demoted the white hero on his white horse into Tonto's less-skilled, less-bright, less-brave, less-everything sidekick," emails Paul Chaat Smith, the museum curator, after seeing the movie last week. "So all the things I don't like about 'The Lone Ranger' -- the loudness, the slapstick humor, the kitchen-sink treatment of history, the deranged mood swings, making Tonto Comanche, moving Texas to New Mexico -- they can be seen as requirements to fill multiplexes in service of the larger goal, which could be to make an Indian character a Hollywood superstar."
Such exposure may prompt the public to explore the real-life issues and achievements of present-day Native peoples, says LaDonna Harris, the founder of Americans for Indian Opportunity who arranged Depp's adoption into the Comanche tribe -- a common gesture of good will and inclusiveness. (The Crow Nation adopted then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008.)
"There were a lot of complaints that he could've been [played by] an Indian, true, but then it wouldn't have gotten the visibility that Johnny Depp could give it," says Harris, who lives in Albuquerque. "I think there hasn't been enough change and ability to have more knowledge about Native Americans because of the way we're incorporated in the history books ... We don't study American history. We study Europeans coming to the Americas."
This unreconciled history dehumanizes an entire people and hollows out a space in the public consciousness that is then filled with stereotype, Van Alst says. The culture creates a character like Tonto, or a mascot like the Redskins, which two out of three Washingtonians say should remain the name of the football team. Exposure to such mascots has a harmful impact on American Indian students' feelings of personal and community worth, according to a 2008 study titled "Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses" and published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology.
What about exposure to Johnny Depp as a Comanche, in a performance that seems to both bolster and dismantle the Tonto stereotype?
This remains to be seen, but perhaps a better question to ask is: What films are being made by American Indians with American Indians about contemporary American Indians?
Van Alst points to the filmmaking community in Albuquerque, whose collaborative dynamic reminds him of Paris during the Nouvelle Vague. And for those who would rather not pay $10-plus to see an 80-year-old, cowboys-and-Indians story in a multiplex this week, he has recommendations of up-and-coming Native directors to check out: Steven Paul Judd, Melissa Henry, Blackhorse Lowe, Brian Young, Trevino Brings Plenty, Jeff Barnaby and Jason Asenap.
"Look, at the end of the day this is a grand opportunity, for not only Comanches but also Indian country in general," Asenap wrote about "The Lone Ranger" last year on Indian Country Today Media Network. "As an independent filmmaker, I welcome the notion that Depp will now keep in mind his new Comanche family and additionally, who knows, maybe he can make contributions in some way to Native film. Stranger things have happened."