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.