Is Johnny Depp’s Portrayal of Tonto Racist?

Hi-yo racist accusations! AND AWAY!

Lena Dunham tweeted a totally valid question to the Twitterverse the other day:

I too, get confused when entertainment blurs the lines of political correctness. I don’t want to appear as if, to quote Jennifer Aniston, I’m missing a “sensitivity chip” or whatever, but in a world where global warming is melting polar ice caps and the government is literally Big Brothering us as we speak, does it really matter if Johnny Depp puts on redface/whiteface (?) for a movie role?

Evan Rachel Wood thinks it does. “Looks pretty offensive.” she replied to Dunham’s tweet.

“That’s what I thought,” Dunham tweeted back. “The Hollywood hive mind is peddling the justification that he’s 1/38th Native American.”

Wood again responded to Dunham, saying, “I mean, technically my great grandfather was part Native American but I am not in line to play Sacagawea.”

How do we feel, readers? Are Dunham and Wood rightfully offended by Disney’s depiction of Tonto in The Lone Ranger? I’m going to need you guys to hash this one out in the comments, but here are some Pros and Cons to get you started:


  • Technically, Johnny Depp IS (probably) part Native american, so it’s not totally out of line for him to play a character that was seriously oppressed by white people. Depp said in an interview that he was initially drawn to the story because he’s got Native American ancestors and didn’t like the way Tonto was bossed around by the Lone Ranger. “I guess I have some Native American somewhere down the line,” he says. “My great grandmother was quite a bit of Native American, she grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian.”
  • Part of being an actor is about having the ability to change your identity and play a character. Tonto is fictional and Depp has played many a fictional roles: Jack Sparrow, the Mad Hatter, Edward Scissorhands, Willy Wonka, Don Juan/John Arnold DeMarco. (Don Juan, btw, is a fictional character who was said to originally be either Spanish or Italian. Depp is neither.)
  • He got the green light from an actual Native American, regardless of his bloodline. In 2012, Depp was adopted as an honorary son of LaDonna Harris, a member of the Comanche tribe and president of Americans for Indian Opportunity. This does not make him a member of the tribe, but he was recognized by Harris for his upcoming role as Tonto, who is described in the film as a “full-blooded Comanche.”
  • He had the right intentions when taking on the role. Depp said that his goal for playing Tonto was to attempt to “reinvent the relationship [between Tonto and the Lone Ranger], to attempt to take some of the ugliness thrown on the Native Americans, not only in The Lone Ranger, but the way Indians were treated throughout history of cinema, and turn it on its head.”


  • Like Lena and Rachel said, even if he’s partially Native American, it’s not enough to justify the role. Besides, it doesn’t sound like he’s totally sure about his ancestry and he hasn’t bothered to confirm anything — that information is available via public record. 
  • Yes, part of being an actor is about having the ability to change your identity, but if Depp donned blackface to play, I don’t know, Shaft, people would be flipping. their. sh*t.
  • People did flip. their. sh*t about Sasha Baron Cohen’s alter-ego characters (like Borat, an anti-Semitic) and Ashton Kutcher’s portrayal of Raj, a fictional, brown-faced Bollywood director (in a Popchips commercial that was later pulled). So why shouldn’t Depp/Hollywood be held accountable for this, too?
  • It’s not even an accurate, respectful portrayal. He looks like a Kiss-clad Gene Simmons-meets-Brandon Lee from The Crow in a Scary Movie version of The Birds. Also, the costume is apparently based off an imaginary painting by a white man, so there’s that.

Featured image via The Global Dispatch