'The Lone Ranger' racist? Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer and more defend the Disney film

the-lone-ranger-racist-johnny-depp-armie-hammer-disney.jpgWhen Disney's "The Lone Ranger" hits theaters Wednesday (July 3), there are bound to be feathers ruffled over its portrayal of Native Americans, including Johnny Depp's Tonto, as complaints of racism began to surface months before the movie ever premiered.

One reviewer, who calls the film a "repulsive racist mess," points to the lack of priority the movie's plot devices place on the depiction of "the destruction of an entire culture." But Zap2it sat down recently with the film's star, Armie Hammer, not far from "The Lone Ranger's" New Mexico set, and he sees the situation quite differently.

[Spoiler alert: The remainder of this article contains specific details about "The Lone Ranger" plot]

Recalling a fierce battle scene near the movie's climax, in which an entire Comanche tribe is wiped out by a U.S. Cavalry troupe, Hammer says, "I think when you watch this film and you see the slaughter of the Indians -- when you see the Chief killed, and you're not on the inside screaming, 'Nooooo!' -- if you watch this scene and don't think, 'Oh, s***; we did something wrong,' then you're not paying attention."

The plotline of "The Lone Ranger" does not pit "the white man" against the "redskins," as so many Westerns historically have. The story is much more complex, examining internal struggles between right and wrong, the dynamics of justice and truth. The story just so happens to be set against the backdrop of a time period when Native Americans and settlers were still foreign to each other.

Depp, who plays Tonto, a Comanche outcast, set about not just to portray that particular character differently than had been done in the past, but also to present the Native American culture from a different, more positive viewpoint than ever before. "In the history of cinema, the Native American has been portrayed as a savage or as a, you know, something lesser than," Depp says during a press conference in Santa Fe, NM. "It was important to me to at least take a good shot at erasing that. We all [director Gore Verbinski and the cast] approached it that way."

In fact, Depp reveals his somewhat expected broken-English Tonto dialect is, in reality, a sort of subversive cliche-fighting device. "It was a kind of a trick in a weird way to sort of suck [the audience] in, and then switch them around, and take them on a different path," says Depp. "So in a way, I had to embrace what is deemed as cliche for Tonto ... in terms of speech pattern or whatever. ... I wanted to convey that the Native Americans were only deemed savages when Christopher 'Columbo' hit the wrong f***ing place, and decided that he'd hit India."

the-lone-ranger-tonto-johnny-depp-disney-jpg.jpgIn Verbinski and Depp's version of this classic story, the Lone Ranger is in effect created by -- and an unwitting sidekick to -- Tonto, rather than the other way around. "As a very young child, I was always perturbed by the idea of Tonto being a sidekick," Depp explains. "I just thought it was potentially an opportunity to right the wrong, you know. I think it's great that Tonto makes the Lone Ranger."

A Comanche adviser to Jerry Bruckheimer's production, Wahathuweeka-William Voelker, points out to Zap2it that many people criticizing Depp's portrayal have not educated themselves on the dynamics unique to traditional Comanche background. And besides, isn't "The Lone Ranger," after all, just a movie? "This was not a historical documentary about our people; it's a piece of entertainment," says Voelker. "Yet, production worked with us to commit as much as possible to historical accuracy. There are things that we got right this time that have never been filmed accurately. We went in knowing that we were damned if we did and and damned if we didn't. But for those things that we committed to film history, we feel very good about it."

Voelker also defends Depp's portrayal and approach to the Tonto character. "You compare Johnny's depiction to that of the orginal Tonto and there is no comparison," he insists. "My hat's off to him. He was very sensitive. He spent hours sitting and visiting with us and taking on all that's historically accurate."

Saginaw Grant, a Native American who portrays the Comanches' Chief Big Bear, tells Zap2it, "People who have criticized [Depp] and his point of view don't even know Johnny. He's Cherokee, so he already had the philosophy of his people, which is: Respect everyone; be available to help everyone; don't talk about anyone; don't lie about anyone."

Depp admits he was unsurprised by the backlash "The Lone Ranger" and his Tonto portrayal have received so far. "I still expect it," he says. "But as long as I know that I have done no harm, and represented, at the very least, the Comanche Nation in a  proper light -- there's always gonna be naysayers. ... Everybody's got an opinion, man, you know. ... People can critique and dissect and do what they want. I know that I approached it in the right way, and that's all I can do." 
Photo/Video credit: Walt Disney Studios