The Lone Ranger

The first trailer for the new Lone Ranger movie is out and it is… oh, god, it is not convincing me I could see that movie. We were talking about this some on Twitter and it’s the fake-Indian speak that does it. It’s just so fucking racist that it’s like nails on a chalk-board. And it’s problematic in many ways, not the least of which is that, in Hollywood films, people who don’t speak English well are coded as stupid or Other or at least not someone the audience should identify with. And yes, it’s true that the movie could be toying with that idea, but I just don’t trust enough that that’s the case. I especially don’t trust it after reading this article about how Johnny Depp based his physical portrayal of Tonto on a picture painted by a guy who is not Native American who paints pictures of admittedly made-up Native Americans. I don’t trust that the movie is striving for any kind of accurate portrayal of human beings and not just stereotyped caricatures of wishful thinking.

But here’s the other thing. We, the United States, used to wholesale steal Indian children, put them in schools and teach them to speak only English. For decades and decades this went on, basically coinciding with the advent of wide-spread recording. So, while there’s basis in real-world experience for our ideas about what an adult first-generation, say, Italian speaker of English sounds like, or Russian or Spanish or so on, since we continue to encounter Italians or Russians or Spaniards who are just now learning English, we are not encountering adult Native Americans who are just now learning English. Speaking very broadly, our ideas about what an adult speaker of any of the Native languages in the continental U.S. who learns English as a second language sounds like are based not on the actual verbal characteristics those folks might have, but on white caricatures of that accent, because there are so few, if any, people today or in decades and decades who have ever encountered an adult fluent in an Indian language who is just learning English. (And that’s on top of the fact that mimicking/mocking other people’s accents is a minefield in itself.)

That accent is like Chief Illiniwek. It tells us more about the history of entertainment, of minstrel shows, and what white people would believe about Native Americans than it does anything about Native Americans’ actual lives.

But could you make a non-racist Lone Ranger? That’s what we ended up mulling over in Twitter (sorry I keep using “we” without referring to the other person’s name, but I want to leave it up to her to decide if/how she participates here). The dynamic of a white guy with an Indian sidekick who runs around restoring USian ideas about law and order is always already (hee!) so loaded with bullshit that it is kind of hard to imagine. And even flipping it on its head–where Tonto is the main character–is still a story told to white people about a Native guy who is a good guy because he wants to help a white guy out.  It drops one set of terrible things for another set that still puts white people at the center of the story.

But imagine modernizing it. Imagine a movie about a guy who is in law enforcement on his reservation. And he’s friendly with, hell maybe even friends with, the guy who is the sheriff of a nearby U.S. town. And say the first guy found out that the second guy was running around playing Batman when he felt like the legal system wouldn’t/couldn’t address the crimes and corruption he was seeing in town. and the masked second guy is having a real effect. Considering what “vigilante justice” usually involves for Native Americans and considering whether and if this would have ramifications for the people on the reservation and considering the intersection of local, state, and federal authorities who might have a problem with this, and considering the mixed feelings the tribal police guy might have about all these things, plus considering the tribal police dude’s fondness for the sheriff who may have lost his ethical way here, doesn’t it seem like there’s real meat there?

And there are other approaches. But that one strikes me as a way to mine that vein in a way that recognizes that there are two human beings at the center of the story.

6 thoughts on “The Lone Ranger

  1. I think you may have just invented the concept of White Gaze. I wanted to write more here, but you already said everything I wanted to say! I stand by my hopes on Twitter, that the Tonto-speak in the trailer will be something just edited for the trailer, and that Tonto will actually be a fully fleshed character, capable of speaking in beautiful English. I think he’s just going to be a Magical Indian, though.

    I think Tonto-as-a-character is inherently tainted; you cannot tell a story about him that doesn’t somehow revolve around The White Guy, unless you make the white guy ALSO Native American (and the bad guys also Native American), in which case, in your attempt to subvert the Tonto tropes, you’ve just reduced being Native American into being just ruddy-skinned white guys. It’s no-win. Even if you re-set the story on the Native American reservations, a masked vigilante going around fighting crime with a side kick … will just be trivialized in the media as a re-imagining of Batman. Which really makes it worse, somehow.

  2. I think the truth is that sometimes oppressed groups take stories told about them and retell them as their own stories and it tells us something new about the story, something that both seemed like it was always there and seems like it was hidden from us. Think of Angela Carter writing about wolves and the women who encounter them. Or Alice Randall and THE WIND DONE GONE.

    So, I suspect, if there is any new ground to cover with a story about the Lone Ranger and Tonto, that’s the shape it will take. Someone will say “I need to make this caricature, designed to flatten me out, too, into a full person I can live with.”

    And that’s not going to be a story most of us, used to a story in which the Lone Ranger is central, are going to like, I imagine.

    But I still think that’s the way to do it, to trust that, if there’s anything worth salvaging in that corner of our nation’s attic, it means we have to stop hogging all the dress-up clothes and let someone else put them on and play in them.

  3. So, I have learned more than I ever wanted to know about the Lone Ranger today, because that’s what I do: I get interested in a subject and then read obsessively about it for the next week. I would really like to see your movie about Tonto, I think … especially if the film maker could be clever about how they handle it and make it non-obvious that it IS a Lone Ranger retelling (maybe Captain Reid is a peripheral character only introduced at the very end of the film).

    I will likely watch the Lone Ranger when it’s released (c’mon dead bird on the head … I am NOT missing that) but I’ve already relegated it to the “on Netflix” or “on OnDemand” buckets. That is NOT a “pay movie theater prices” movie, even on it’s very best day.

  4. Also .. I’ve actually participated here from time to time before — I started reading your blog because of Mrs. W! Say Uncle was linked to from some other blog, and you had commented on his blog, so then I read your blog … and Bob’s yer uncle.

  5. Actually the stealing of children cut both ways: Allow me to introduce you to my 5th great-grandfather, Birdtail King (of the Creek Nation)*

    In 1777, Tustunnuggee Hopoie, the Far Off Warrior of the Fish Ponds, and his father, Mad Dog of Tuckabatchee, led an attack on Fort Roger’s which was on the Ogeechee River in present-day Taliaferro County, Georgia. This was apparently the vengeance taken for the death of the head warrior of the Tiger clan and nephew of Ishenpoaphe. In the ensuing attack on the fort, the tribe captured a young girl named Hannah Hale, who was about 11 or 12 years old. In all likelihood, her father was a soldier stationed at the fort.

    Young Hannah Hale, and probably several other captives, were taken to the Far Off Warrior’s village known by traders as the “Fish Ponds” and located on the Coosa River situated in present-day Coosa County, Alabama. Hannah Hale would later marry the Far Off Warrior, Tustunnuggee Hopoie, and by him have five children.

    * his Daddy was named “Mad Dog” — which you can imagine is something of which I am quite proud :-)

  6. Or we could all just read Tony Hillerman novels or the new Louise Erdrich “Roundhouse” which sounds fabulous.

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