The ‘redface’ era returns

Rob Schmidt

LOS ANGELES – The great era of the Western movie – the middle of the 20th century – was also the era of “redface.”

Non-Native actors played Indians in dark makeup, horsehair wigs and “leathers and feathers” costumes. The long list of such actors includes Anthony Quinn, Rock Hudson, Charles Bronson, Burt Lancaster, Yul Brynner, Ricardo Montalbán and Audrey Hepburn.

Around 1970, things began to change. Native actors such as Chief Dan George, Will Sampson and Ned Romero began playing authentic Indians. After “Dances with Wolves,” the principle that Natives knew Natives best seemed firmly entrenched. Actors such as Wes Studi, Graham Greene, Tantoo Cardinal and Floyd Westerman got steady work playing notable Indian characters.

But in the last year or so, redface has made a comeback. Native actors have been shut out of almost every major role calling for an Indian.

“Hollywood is simply returning to a very old trend of casting non-Indians as Indians,” said Debra Utacia Krol, Salinan, journalist and owner of Jolon Indian Publishing. “Anybody remember Katharine Ross as Willie Boy’s Paiute princess bride; or Chuck Connors as Cochise, blue eyes and all?”

Once Adam Beach left the NBC series “Law and Order: SVU,” the bubble seems to have burst. It’s as if Hollywood told itself, “We gave an Indian a chance and it didn’t work out. Now we’re going to cast whoever we want.”

Recent casting choices suggesting redface has returned:

The Disney studio and producer Jerry Bruckheimer have cast Johnny Depp as Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s “faithful Indian companion,” in an upcoming movie. Depp’s great-grandmother was reportedly a full Eastern Cherokee, which would make Depp one-eighth Indian by “blood.” But, a Kentucky Caucasian who’s a bit Cherokee is a far cry from an unalloyed Texas Apache like Tonto. If Depp’s version of an Indian is as caricatured as his version of a pirate, fans may cringe at the results.

In the movie version of Stephanie Meyer’s popular “Twilight” books, Taylor Lautner (“The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D”) plays Jacob Black, a Quileute Indian werewolf. Except for his tan skin, he looks like a typical teen heartthrob. After being cast, Lautner conveniently discovered he has a smidgen of Potawatomi and Ottawa ancestry. That doesn’t change the fact that the producers thought he was non-Native and hired him on that basis.

To play Pearl Carter Scott in a movie about the pioneering Chickasaw aviatrix, the filmmakers cast actress Elijah DeJesus. Pearl’s mother was half Chickasaw and half Choctaw, but DeJesus is Latina.

In the new “Wolverine” movie, actress Lynn Collins plays the mutant’s first love Silver Fox. Collins claims to have “Native American roots,” but she looks Anglo and has no record of a relationship with Indians. Moreover, the producers have changed her character from a strong Blackfeet woman into some sort of whitewashed hybrid named “Kayla Silverfox.”

In the big-screen version of “The Last Airbender,” a Nickelodeon cartoon series, M. Night Shyamalan has cast Anglos as Asians and Inuit. In one interview, actor Jackson Rathbone explained how he’d play the Native character Sokka: “I think it’s one of those things where I pull my hair up, shave the sides, and I definitely need a tan,” he said.

In the NBC TV series “Crusoe,” the producers have changed Friday the Indian into a black man. The show offered no explanation for how an African tribe could be indigenous to the Caribbean. The move has eliminated the first significant Native character in English literature.

A Los Angeles-based filmmaker plans to make a movie about three Wyandot sisters who fought to protect their ancestral burial grounds from development. He wants an “all-star cast,” which presumably would exclude Native actors. Englishman Ben Kingsley has agreed to produce the movie and play Vice President Charles Curtis, who was a Kaw Indian of mixed ancestry.

In short, Hollywood is telling the world that anyone who has a slightly ethnic look is close enough to play an Indian. This is exactly the situation that existed half a century ago. Then it was Greeks, Italians and Mexicans; now it’s Filipinos, Brazilians and Chinese.

These days, a good tan is the only thing that separates Indians from other Americans. Producers would never suggest a Native to play King Arthur, Superman or JFK, but it’s okay for non-Natives to play Friday, Tonto or Charles Curtis. Message to Indians: You and your culture and heritage don’t matter.

“Natives need to be cast for Native parts,” said Shonie De La Rosa, Navajo, director and owner of Sheephead Films. “It’s that simple. With a little effort on Hollywood’s part it can be done.”

Rob Schmidt is a non-Native freelance writer based in Los Angeles.