• Wed, Jul 3 2013

Even If You’re Racist, You Still Won’t Enjoy The Lone Ranger

The Lone RangerI need to apologize, you guys, because I think I really led you astray with my one-woman hype machine for The Lone Ranger. I’ve been writing for months that it looks super racist because of Johnny Depp‘s portrayal of a stereotypical Native American with the character Tonto, and I fear I may be the reason that Paula Deen and thousands of other racists across the nation rush from their homes to see this movie in theaters. But it comes out today and here’s the thing — it turns out even if you’re racist, you’re still not gonna enjoy this film. And here’s why: this movie doesn’t know its audience. It’s a Disney movie, written by Gore Verbinski, who has experience with both Disney and Johnny Depp from his work on the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies. You’d think that that series would’ve been perfect training for this film, because they found a way to master being goofy in a way that was appealing to both kids and adults, but it’s like all that information flew out of everybody’s heads when they were making The Lone Ranger.

From an objective perspective, there’s a lot for a kid to love about this movie. It has nonrealistic, stereotypical main characters — Johnny as Tonto and Armie Hammer as John Reid, the Lone Ranger — who spend their time together bumbling into successes while taking multiple breaks for slapstick routines. It has a horse with magical abilities who rescues its hapless owners from certain death on multiple occasions and can maybe also fly and climb trees. It has an astounding lack of physics which allows said horse to leap from the tops of houses to the top of a moving train without missing a beat. And plus, it has pidgin English, which is always a rip-roaring good time, am I right?

The Lone Ranger Johnny Depp as Tonto talks to Silver July 2013

But it also has things that are unmistakably targeted to an older crowd, like scenes of carnage between the settlers and the Comanches, where the guilt of the white man is spattered thickly over the corpses of the brutally mown-down Native Americans. In a meeting with Comanche leaders intended to prevent a war, the Native-American leaders refuse to extend their trust to John Reid, saying that all white men lie, but then tempering that very adult moment rich with generations of abuse and meaning with the throwaway line, “But what’s with the mask?” It also contains unexplained cannibalism, vivid deaths onscreen, and moments of suspense, all tastefully layered over sight gags and mugging for the audience.

In one scene in particular, while Tonto is pulling the Lone Ranger along the ground to safety, he lets his head drag through a pile of horse poop. Because kids love poop, right? And who would want to miss out on the moment when the Lone Ranger wakes up, touches the back of his own head, and smells his hand? Movie magic. It’s like the film never decided whether it wanted to make a statement or a joke, please the kid audience or bate the adult one, so it swung wildly back and forth and did neither.

The movie does make a half-hearted attempt to distance itself from the racism of Tonto by labeling Johnny Depp as a renegade Comanche who shouldn’t represent the beliefs or culture of his native tribe, but it’s heavy-handed. And of course there are the reminders of centuries of abuse at the hands of the whites, but those nods to history do little to excuse the fact that Tonto’s stilted speech is a lazy, stereotypical convention, and they ignored the opportunity to cast a Native American in the role of a Native American. But they get all the roles in Hollywood anyway, right? Let’s give a middle aged white guy a chance, for once. Ben Affleck knows what I’m saying. We all saw Argo.

In trying to cover all their bases at once, kid movie and adult movie, slapstick comedy and deep thoughtful piece on the mistreatment of native cultures, The Lone Ranger misses every mark they aim at. There are decent performances by William Fichtner as Butch Cavendish and Helena Bonham Carter as the ivory-legged madame of a brothel, but it’s not enough to give meaning to this collection of action scenes roped together with nostalgia and attempts at doofy charm. Plus, they never do explain the convention they use as a bookend, of Tonto standing motionless in a museum exhibit in 1933 and then coming alive to tell his story to a little kid dressed as the Lone Ranger, and it’s about forty-five minutes too long anyway, so I don’t know why that part wasn’t scrapped altogether.

I’d recommend against seeing it in theaters unless you’re a guilt-ridden racist with the tolerance for violence of an adult and an eight-year old’s appreciation of physics and fart jokes. So…like…a stand-up comedian, basically. You’re welcome, Disney, for finding your perfect audience.

(Images: The Hollywood Reporter / Inside The Magic)

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  • Olivia Wilson

    Because of this movie, grade school history classes will be very interesting places when they get to the chapters about Native Americans. Bad interesting, I mean.

  • shannyn

    what about if I’m REALLY racist?

  • MCR

    Thanks for the warning. I was assuming the movie couldn’t possibly be as bad as the trailer suggested, but maybe I was wrong.

    • http://twilightirruption.blogspot.com/ abbeysbooks

      My radio days in childhood and my love for The Lone Ranger are not going to get disturbed by my seeing this picture.

  • Cory Gross

    “Plus, they never do explain the convention they use as a bookend, of Tonto standing motionless in a museum exhibit in 1933 and then coming alive to tell his story to a little kid dressed as the Lone Ranger”

    1933 was the year that The Lone Ranger debuted on radio. It wasn’t just a “museum exhibit” that Tonto was standing in: it was a travelling “Wild West” show from the period when the concept of the romanticized “Wild West” was invented (and advertising as a return to “the thrilling days of yesteryear,” another reference to the original Lone Ranger). The Lone Ranger radio show was part of that romanticizing, as was Gene Autry, whose singing provided the background music to that scene. Wild West shows did frequently hire Native Americans as specimens of the “Noble Savage” to reinforce this romantic vision.

    In the film, Tonto the “Noble Savage” (lampshading how he has traditionally been represented in the various incarnations of The Lone Ranger) is roused by meeting a young fan of the radio show, and begins to tell him the “true story” of the Lone Ranger. However, it becomes apparent that Tonto himself is an unreliable narrator, which raises all sorts of questions about the story itself (Is Tonto telling the true story? Is the supernaturalism in the story real or imagined? Is the Lone Ranger real or imagined? Is Tonto himself real or was he just imagined by the boy?) as well as raising a subtext about how a culture – the USA in particular – recollects and interprets its own history.

    This film does a lot of that sort of thing. It pokes and lampshades a lot of the corniness, myth-making, and conventions of previous versions of The Lone Ranger and Westerns in general. It’s not a heavy deconstruction of these ideas… for the most part it’s played for laughs… but it is there if one is informed enough about the subject and conscientious enough of a viewer to pick it up. A movie really shouldn’t have to spoonfeed its ideas to the audience, but it seems like there’s been a pretty solid effort in the media and blogosphere to undeservedly call this movie a piece of crap, so I guess Verbinski and co. should have anticipated it. If you actually understand what is going on in it thematically, the rest of these disparate elements you point out start to gel together.

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