Being Tonto



Finally got up the nerve to see The Lone Ranger.

The movie earned jibes from Indian Country and was slammed by the critics all summer.

My Facebook pals panned the film so I figure I can’t critique it without viewing it.

So I did.

The film is a wild ride, complete with dynamite salvos, horses on rooftops, angry scorpions and a peg-legged prostitute.

Geared to a 12-year old, the movie blasts through the Wild West with Tonto and the Lone Ranger trading insults while besting the bad guys.

The picture is a lively respite from a dull day: visually enticing with enough sarcastic quotes to keep viewers tuned in.

Tonto calls the Lone Ranger stupid white man (an endearment well-earned) and manages—like the Jack Sparrow character Johnny Depp plays in the pirate movies—to escape from bindings and burials with magical aplomb.

Indian critics charged that Tonto is borne of stereotypes. True enough.

But all the characters—from the Lone Ranger to the Chinese rail workers–are solidly two-dimensional.

The film suffers less from the wooden treatment of Tonto—who is more fully fleshed out than anyone else—than it does from the derivative narrative.

If you’ve never read or seen a Western, you’ll be surprised.

But if you have, then you’ll find the plot tread-worn.

• The hero pines for his former flame, now married to his brother
• The town’s major domo is a crook with a vested interest in the railroad
• The villain gets pleasure from cutting out the hearts of his victims
• The cavalry’s captain is a ringer for George Custer, whose allegiances bend with the wind

Point is, Tonto is just as thin as every other character but more fun to watch because he’s played by Johnny Depp.

And while Tonto’s face-paint lacks authenticity, the gun-slinger’s gold tooth and the prostitute’s beauty mark are equally fake.

But they’re symbols—not truisms—of the Wild West.

It’s just a movie.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in american indian, authenticity, cinema, film, framing, Indian and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Being Tonto

  1. Ashana M says:

    I still don’t understand why it’s acceptable to have a Native American figure run around in bizarre face paint and speak without articles, but no one would ever dare portray anyone in black face speaking in dialect. I haven’t heard a word of criticism from main stream news sources. It really is as if no one outside a very small sliver of the world even noticed.


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