Aside from an interesting story about silver mining on Indigenous territory and some fun train-chase scenes, there is very little redeeming about Disney's new summer blockbuster The Lone Ranger. Although many critics have focused on Johnny Depp's racist portrayal of Tonto as the Lone Ranger's Indigenous side-kick, Depp's strange, Jack Sparrow-esque depiction of Tonto is just one troubling aspect of a film that, on the whole, perpetuates the ongoing legacy of colonialism and rationalizes capitalism as commonsensical.
To be sure, Depp's portrayal of Tonto is deeply problematic. Although Depp consulted Indigenous leaders about the role, was adopted by the Comanche tribe, and even sported some American Indian Movement clothing and reportedly attended an Idle No More rally, his depiction of Tonto nevertheless conforms to colonial stereotypes of Indigenous peoples as backward, slow, mystical and easily conned out of land. And despite Depp's intention to provide Tonto with agency, in the film Tonto remains a comical side-kick on the margins of a story about the rise to power of a white, male protagonist in the Lone Ranger (played by Armie Hammer).
Tonto is not the only character shackled by colonial stereotypes. The Lone Ranger denies all Indigenous peoples any meaningful sense of agency. The end of Indigenous ways of life is presented as natural and inevitable, and the Comanche, in particular, are depicted as having no other option but to accept capitalist "progress."
While the film contains a few scenes depicting Indigenous peoples fighting back, for the most part these scenes occur in dream sequences which undercut their validity for audiences. Moreover, these sequences emphasize the "savagery" of Indigenous tactics and play into white fears of "Indians" raiding white settlements and killing and scalping seemingly innocent settlers for revenge. At the end of the film, the Comanche are finally depicted as fighting back against the U.S. Calvary in real-time, but they are dramatically defeated. This defeat symbolizes the end of Comanche resistance to "modernity" and erroneously implies that Indigenous peoples finally accepted the end of their traditional ways of life sometime in the 1860s.
The film's conclusion hammers home the idea that Indigenous peoples gave up their own cultures and accepted "progress." In one scene, Tonto, who is narrating the story to a young white child while on display in a Wild West show as a "Noble Savage," casts off his "traditional" clothing and dons a western suit, complete with briefcase, and literally walks off stage. This type of imagery invokes the famous image by traveller-painter George Catlin entitled "Wi-Jun-Jon (Pigeon's Egg Head) Going to and Returning from Washington" (circa 1830s) which is often used to illustrate the transition of Indigenous peoples from "savagery" to so-called civilization. Audiences are thus left with the impression that Indigenous ways of life disappeared by the 1860s -- and most certainly by the early 20th century -- and that Indigenous peoples have now completely assimilated into white settler society.
The Lone Ranger also naturalizes capitalism by suggesting that the "bad guys" in the film are simply "bad apples." In this case the bad guys are the mean Cavendish brothers (played by William Fitchner and Tom Wilkinson) who are hell-bent on striking it rich in the American west at all costs and the corrupt Captain Jay Fuller (played by Barry Pepper) who shares a striking resemblance to General George Custer. Instead of truthfully exposing the deep historical connections between railroad capitalists, the U.S. government, and the U.S. Calvary in their attempts to dispossess Indigenous peoples of their lands to extract and export valuable resources to accompany capitalist social development, The Lone Ranger depicts the Cavendish brothers and Captain Fuller as social outcasts. Nevertheless, the Lone Ranger, with the help of Tonto of course, eventually defeats these "bad apples" and saves the day, and this leads the audience to conclusion that justice prevailed in the American west. The film suggests that colonial conflicts ended in the 1860s and, as Indigenous peoples accepted "progress" and the "bad apples" were rooted out, a new peaceful and legitimate American society was established. This is the Disneyification of the more complicated histories of colonialism and capitalism.
Ultimately, The Lone Ranger rationalizes colonialism, denies Indigenous peoples' agency, and legitimizes the triumph of capitalism in western North America as natural, inevitable, and even commonsensical. And while the film hints at America's troubled past -- Tonto even states that "blood has been spilled" -- it does so in a way that suggests that the wounds of colonialism are squarely in the past. However, as movements like Idle No More are powerfully suggesting, the injuries of colonialism are far from healed or forgotten; they are still very raw and real today. In the end, it is the Disneyfication of the histories of colonialism and capitalism, and not just Depp's depiction of Tonto in The Lone Ranger, that must be challenged and ruthlessly critiqued.
Sean Carleton is a PhD student in the Frost Centre for Canadian and Indigenous Studies at Trent University. He is currently living on unceded Sḵwxwú7mesh territory.
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