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The ‘redface’ era returns

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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.

  “Natives need to be cast for Native parts. It’s that simple.”

Shonie De La Rosa, Navajo, director and owner of Sheephead Films

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.

Analysis of the trend

What’s behind these anti-Indian casting decisions? “If I’m a producer trying to get a studio or an investor to put up a substantial amount of money for a film, I know I’ll have a better chance of securing funding if I cast a big name like Johnny Depp,” said filmmaker/playwright James Lujan, Taos Pueblo, stating a common belief. “Studios and investors are obviously more interested in turning a profit than cultural sensitivity.” But is this really valid? The most successful movie franchises – “Star Wars,” “Spider-Man,” “Harry Potter,” “Batman” – have succeeded without big-name stars. When unknowns like Taylor Lautner, Lynn Collins and Jackson Rathbone are picked over equally unknown Natives, popularity isn’t the issue. Nor is the issue a lack of Native talent. Thousands of Indians have starred on the stage and screen, amassed years of experience and won acting awards. Tara J. Ryan, president and owner of Tijer Lily Co., a Native entertainment promotion and management service, once wrote about a casting director who couldn’t “find” any Indians. “I sent her so many qualified candidates I lost count, literally.” No, the explanation seems to be a variation of “see no evil” – namely, “see no Indians.” Like the rest of America, Hollywood believes Indians have vanished into the mists, an impression reinforced by countless textbooks, monuments and sports mascots. The “few” remaining ones are huddled on a remote reservation somewhere, producers think, so why bother trying to contact them? Why is this casting trend a problem? Who cares if non-Natives play Natives in movies and TV shows? How does this hurt Indians who are struggling to survive? Isn’t this a trivial matter compared to issues such as poverty and treaty rights? First, non-Native actors take roles that should go to Native actors. Natives will never be as popular as Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts or Will Smith if Hollywood doesn’t give them a chance. Nobody knew Denzel Washington or Jackie Chan would become major stars until they became major stars, which they did by repeated exposure to audiences. Second, selecting tanned Caucasians to play Indians continues the marginalization of anyone who doesn’t look “right.” Indians already suffer enough health problems without the added pressure to look thin, pretty and pale-skinned. Failing to live up to the white mainstream’s standards is surely a factor in the high rates of Native depression and suicide. Third, the casting decisions contribute to the notion that anyone can become an Indian simply by acting like one. From costumed mascots to New Age believers to children dressing up for Halloween and Thanksgiving, this belief is already widespread. Many Americans think today’s Indians are greedy wannabes who have adopted Native identities to enrich themselves from government “handouts” and casinos. Seeing Johnny Depp or Ben Kingsley play an Indian sends the message that real Indians are gone and only pretenders are left. Fortunately, it’s possible to stymie this troubling trend. After “Twilight’s” people received widespread criticism for casting Lautner as an Indian, they almost replaced him. They received even more criticism for contemplating Vanessa Hudgens, a sexy Disney starlet, as an Indian. They finally relented and hired Rene Haynes, longtime Native casting director, to find ethnically appropriate actors. But vigilance remains necessary to prevent more redface travesties. “I think it’s important for the Native community to take exception and speak up whenever a non-Native is cast in a Native role,” said Lujan, “particularly for a high-profile project like the ‘Twilight’ series and ‘The Lone Ranger.’” “One thing is certain,” added Krol, “until we have Natives working as producers, writers and directors within the major studios, we’ll still have to contend with non-Indians being cast as Indians.”

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.