Oh my god, they’ve gentrified the Lone Ranger and painted Tonto white.
Gore Verbinski’s re-imagining of the Lone Ranger’s origin story is an almost good movie that might have been a blockbuster of a great movie, a telling of the story exploring those recesses of the American psyche that have made the Lone Ranger an icon of popular culture over the 80 years since it premiered on Detroit’s WXYZ-radio in January, 1933.
The film occasionally exhibits enough narrative virtuosity and verve to have reached those heights, but the moment it seems bound for high ground, it recoils, resorting to corny jokes, slapstick, or some other disconcerting narrative device that brings the story back to the low road of least resistance. It is as though the movie’s three scriptwriters never reached a consensus on an overarching artistic vision or a even a controlling tone.
The first misstep comes at the outset. By convention, the would be cowboy-hero must be a member of the hoi polloi, an Everyman, ordinary in his social standing, experience, and outlook; someone like any one of us, except for his capacity to act as we hope, but often doubt, we would if we dared do as we think we ought.
In contrast, the man who becomes the Lone Ranger, John Reid, played by Armie Hammer in this version of the story, is a recent law school graduate heading home to Texas on a train from back East shortly after the Civil War. Dressed in a lawyerly pinstriped suit and clutching a copy of John Locke’s “Second Treatise on Government” Reid returns home a dude and an egghead.
In the semiotics of Westerns, dudes and eggheads are figures of comic relief, if not scorn. Thus, within the first minutes of the movie, the heroic vision of the Lone Ranger is completely overturned. In its place, emerges a naive, priggish, antic Lone Ranger more akin to Dudley Do-Right than the original character.
Undoubtedly, Verbinski’s diminishment of that character figures in his much publicized intention of giving top billing to Tonto, played by Johnny Depp. The problem is that Depp’s Tonto, like the movie’s Reid character, does not inspire audiences to identify with him. A man with a “broken mind, this Tonto is too strange for that. He would be less strange and off-putting if he were not in whiteface throughout most of the movie.
Except for a few brief scenes of the story’s framing device in which Tonto is presented as its very unreliable narrator, Tonto is artificially white, the whiteness of his thick, cracking white face paint intensified by two black streaks bisecting each side of his face from scalp to chin at the eyes.
Did Tonto have to become white to rate top billing? To be fair, the face paint may be seen as emblematic of a peculiar form of estrangement about which Algerian psychiatrist Franz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Mask.
In that groundbreaking study of the psychological impact of colonization, Fanon observed that one survival strategy of the oppressed is to seek accommodation by recasting themselves in the image of their oppressors. In that light, those bars bisecting Tonto’s face may be interpreted as representing the psychological misprision of his authentic self.
Although that may be a permissible interpretation, it seems inconsistent with all the pre-release buzz about elevating Tonto. Moreover, that new image of Tonto, would invite consideration of whether the chief problem of this very problematic character relates not to appearances, but to his inability to articulate complex thoughts. His speech is only a slight improvement on the pigeon English of the original character and is markedly less proficient than that of other Native Americans who figure significantly in the movie.
If only Tonto had been made as articulate as the other Native Americans, he could have spoken truth to power. He could have presented the story as what is sometimes called a buffer tale, a folkloric story form in which the powerless—too wily ever to be broken—triumph over oppression, usually by amusing fetes of cunning and chicanery.
Such tales’ trickster heroes are practitioners of the mental equivalent of jujitsu. Dodging and deflecting the blows of oppression, they serve as exhortations to personal agency, situational awareness, and dissimulation.
Some such figure probably would have realized Depp’s wish that his Tonto would “give some hope to kids on the reservations.”
• Empire of the Summer Sun: Manifest Destiny and the Fate of the Comanche http://tmblr.co/ZIl0ByMYpy5P
• The Lady At O.K. Corral: The True Story of Wyatt Earp’s Wife of Nearly 50 Years http://tmblr.co/ZIl0Bypx7Jtw
Follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/PotomacWill