My daughter and I emerged from a packed theater on the first Friday night showing of The Lone Ranger in Santa Fe, New Mexico. My daughter asked what I think. “All the Native women were dead hon, there’s something wrong with that.” “Well, there was that woman who was in the Harry Potter movies – that Helena woman. She was good.”
What LR has created for this small but infamous western town of 69,000 is buzz. With the exclusive press junket hosted here the week before the film’s release, and our proximity to many of the spectacular locations filmed, Santa Fe is something of a hometown host to the production. The question on everyone’s minds is Johnny Depp’s depiction of Tonto – is it racist? In a place known for opportunistically marketing its perceived “tri-cultural harmony” charges of racism are familiar stuff, so why worry?
While Santa Fe’s bread and butter is the merchandizing of Native-themed commodities, in reality only 2% of the population in the city is Native American (the rest roughly half Hispanic, half White). Given that the Native presence is largely marginalized in this pricey and over-educated town, maybe it is logical that the local talk could miss the most important point. Johnny Depp’s Tonto portrayal is the least offensive matter to consider. The greater issue is, where are the voices of our Native women?
If you want to move the dialogue on race forward, even and especially in the entertainment industry, you’ve got to include women – behind the scenes and on camera. For all of his apparent good will to erase stereotypes, Mr. Depp is not the individual who can change centuries of bias, hate and discrimination. In fact, no one man can accomplish this, but I’m pretty confident a Native woman could. Why? Because the male warrior in conflict with Western civilization simply supports the values he apparently challenges. But that’s another article.
I’m a college professor who teaches American Indian film, so I’m not arguing that “It’s just a movie.” I think film is a powerful tool that can change beliefs and behaviors, and I’ve witnessed profound transformations in attitudes about race watching films over decades with hundreds of students. But this film? LR’s faults are: 1) Too much –the length, the plot, the characters, the train scenes, and the violence. Audiences cannot digest all of this at one sitting and enjoy themselves, 2) Too little – Characters are under-developed and thrust upon the viewer in a hurried rush, 3) Too late – Audiences are unconnected with decades-old television portrayals. You can’t make a meaningful critique of references that are staid and unintelligent to viewers today.
Listen up Disney. We know better and we are not buying it. If you want to market Native like LR’s hometown host Santa Fe markets Native, be inclusive. Oh, and yeah, don’t forget the Native women.
Nancy Marie Mithlo, Chiricahua Apache, is Associate Professor of Art History and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.