When I saw the photo of Johnny Depp dressed as Tonto in the new "The Lone Ranger" movie, my first thought was, “Whoa, what is he wearing?” My second thought was, “Wait, he’s playing Tonto? The native American?” My third thought was, “They had to have a white person do this?”
There are a lot of people who seem to feel that Johnny Depp can do no wrong. That is why I was particularly surprised and disappointed to see him with headdress feathers and war paint. What does it mean if Johnny Depp, the movie star who spurns the phoniness of Hollywood, is dressing up as another race? Certainly the role was not forced on him.
And apparently, there are some people who seem to think it’s okay for Depp to play a Native American because of his claim that, “I guess I have some Native American [in me] somewhere down the line. My great-grandmother was quite a bit of Native American, she grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian.”
What is this, the one-drop rule in reverse?
For his part, Depp said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that he took the role because, “I always felt Native Americans were badly portrayed in Hollywood films over the decades. It’s a real opportunity for me to give a salute to them.”
This just seems to reaffirm the findings of the study on the number of Asian American actors on Broadway, that in some ways, things are not getting better for the representation of minorities on the stage and the screen—both in how they are portrayed, and how often they are cast. The fact that there was some outcry against the photo of Depp perhaps should be heartening, but really, how is Johnny Depp in war paint any different than Al Jolson with burnt cork on his face in 1927, or Warner Oland with a fake Fu Manchu moustache in 1931? As Marissa Wolf said in her post on the all-white production of "Hairspray," it just seems to prove “That minstrelsy, even well-intentioned, ‘We just want to tell this great story,’ minstrelsy, is alive and well in this country.”
On the morning that I saw the picture, I just happened to be reading the introduction by Michael Omi to an anthology of plays by Philip Gotanda, "Fish Head Soup and Other Plays." It brought to mind a class I took in college on the representation of Asians and Asian Americans in popular media in which we talked about the long tradition of white actors dressing up in yellowface. Michael Omi points out how in "Yankee Dawg You Die," Gotanda portrays the difference in viewpoint between the old and the new generations of Asian American actors. The old generation, embodied in the older Asian American actor Vincent, is proud of how far they’ve come from the days of playing “the bucktoothed, groveling waiter,” while the new generation, embodied by Bradley, “look[s] down on Vincent as a ‘Chinese Stepinfetchit.’”
Just recently, at a talkback I attended after "Tree City Legends" at Intersection for the Arts/Campo Santo, a young Asian American actress expressed her tortured ambivalence about going to Hollywood. On the one hand, she hears from friends in the industry and sees on the screen how difficult it is for Asian Americans to play anything but stereotypes; but on the other, she says, she would love to be the one to break the mold and lay the groundwork for all Asian American actors to come.
Native Americans seem to be a group that is often overlooked in conversations about how minorities are portrayed onscreen or onstage. Perhaps this is the beginning of a cultural backlash against the practice of redface? And why are they overlooked? I’m guessing it’s because they are one of the smallest minorities (they represent 1.7% of the U.S. population, according to the 2010 census), and because of the lack of material written by Native American authors for Native American performers. In all my courses on the representation of minorities in theatre, I don’t remember ever talking about Native Americans in the theatre, other than as part of the discussion on Chicano theatre. Will there one day be a Native American Theater Company, as there is the Asian American Theater Company, African American Shakespeare Company, Teatro Campesino and Golden Thread?
The views represented in this Chatterbox Art & Opinion post are those of the individual author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Theatre Bay Area or its staff.