‘The Lone Ranger’ misses on many marks

'White-washing' still a serious issue in Hollywood films

Graham Haught/Staff

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Following the enormous box-office success of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, Jerry Bruckheimer and Gore Verbinski attempt to bring the same style of action and comedy to the Western genre with “The Lone Ranger.” While the over-the-top action sequences with the typical shootouts and train robberies provide some thrills, the film never deviates from the traditional Western formula, ultimately making it predictable and forgettable.

John Reid (Armie Hammer) is a straight-shooting lawyer who gets tangled in a train robbery and ends up connected with Tonto (Johnny Depp), a Comanche Indian. In the late 19th-century setting, John represents the modernity of Western civilization, keeping John Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government” as his bible, while Tonto represents the primitivism of his tribe, feeding the dead crow on his head and providing spiritual insights to his partner. In order to capture the gang of bandits who killed John’s brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), the two have to work together and reconcile their cultural differences. Putting on his mask, John has to let go of his lawyer mentality and, with the help of Tonto, embrace the recklessness of the Wild West.

The casting of Johnny Depp as Tonto, an American Indian, raised many eyebrows, especially with the prevalence of “whitewashing” in Hollywood movies, a convention in which a studio casts a white actor in a nonwhite role. The Walt Disney Co. has done this recently with Jake Gyllenhaal in “Prince of Persia,” but Hollywood has been whitewashing its characters for decades. Elizabeth Taylor, for example, was cast as Cleopatra in the 1963 film “Cleopatra,” and Laurence Olivier infamously performed Othello in blackface in 1965, a turn that earned him an Oscar nod. While Depp has tried to quell controversy about “The Lone Ranger” by affirming his Native American ancestry, the Tonto character remains a problem. Even Depp’s wryness and charm can’t save Tonto from being a stock American Indian caricature, speaking only in broken English and aphorisms and having a spiritual sagacity that his white partner can’t quite comprehend.

What’s even more troubling is that Tonto exhibits many traits of the “Magical Negro,” a common Hollywood trope in which the supporting African-American character is only used to benefit the white protagonist, often using mystical powers (for example, Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of God in “Bruce Almighty”). While he is given a backstory, his desires still remain ambiguous, and his actions are only to help with John’s mission. For a large portion of the film, he is kept in the background, while John, with the emphasis as the “lone” ranger, is given all the glory as the masked hero. As a result, John is presented as a more developed and sympathetic character, while Tonto is deprived of agency and remains perpetually alien.

There are a few compelling elements in the film, such as the development of the transcontinental railroad helping usher in America’s industrialization and a prostitute, played by Helena Bonham Carter, with a gun hidden in her prosthetic leg. However, when these aspects of the film trump the main attraction — the lone ranger and Tonto duo — there is something wrong with the movie. Minority characters in Hollywood movies are often either marginalized or replaced by white actors, but somehow, “The Lone Ranger” managed to both disregard and whitewash Tonto. “The Lone Ranger” is a reminder of not only the banality of summer blockbuster flicks but also the conservatism of the Hollywood industry as it fails to adapt its casting to reflect the diversity of America.

Contact Fan Huang at [email protected].