Saturday, July 6, 2013

What I've Been Watching Lately: The Lone Ranger and My Continued UneaseWith Media Depictions of Native Americans

Since breaking my ankle a couple of months ago, I haven’t been getting out much.  For weeks, my days have been filled with physical therapy appointments, doctor visits, and watching Me-TV while icing my swollen joint.  Needless to say, when an opportunity to leave the house that isn’t medically necessary arises, I jump (albeit metaphorically) at the chance.  This, dear readers, is how I ended up watching The Lone Ranger.

Admittedly, The Lone Ranger isn’t the type of film I typically watch. Primarily, my tastes skew more towards Ingmar Bergman (serious, Scandinavian) than Gore Verbinski (action-packed, mass-appeal), but for free and for Armie Hammer I can happily leave the art house behind for the afternoon.

Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, based on the radio and television show of the same name, tells the familiar tale of the masked vigilante: After surviving an ambush that killed his brother and four other Texas Marshals, Deputy Texas Marshal John Reid (Hammer) is left for a certain death until Tonto (Johnny Depp), a Native American from the Comanche Nation, nurses him back to health.  At Tonto’s insistence, Reid dons a black leather mask fashioned from his dead brother’s vest to conceal his identity and begins to hunt the man, Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), responsible for the ambush.  A wrench is soon thrown into the pair’s seemingly straightforward search for justice when Cavendish is also implicated in a series of raids on a white homesteads, for which the Comanche have been blamed, and involvement in a corrupt railroad expansion project.  As you’d expect, the duo triumph over evil once they are able to resolve their personal and existential conflicts.

At first blush, The Lone Ranger is a typical Verbinski action film, filled with slapstick humor  (the Ranger’s horse Silver’s peculiar antics steal the show) and fight sequences that boggle the mind; however, much to my surprise, The Lone Ranger has some depth, particularly as it relates to the treatment of Native Americans.  The film opens at a county fair in 1933 San Francisco, where a young Lone Ranger fan encounters an elderly Tonto in an Old West show, displayed for audiences in an exhibit titled “The Noble Savage.”  Tonto then recounts the Ranger’s origin story to the enthralled, and slightly unsettled, youngster.  From this first scene it is readily apparent that this film will be unlike most Westerns as it is told from a Native American character’s point of view.  Further, the depiction of an elderly Tonto working in an Old West show, as a curiosity in an exhibit that labels him as a savage, highlights the exploitation and decimation of aboriginal nations across our continent.

Throughout the film, Verbinski encourages his audience to empathize and identify with the embattled Comanche Nation against both the United States Cavalry and the Transcontinental Railroad.  The Comanche are fighting a losing battle against Manifest Destiny, as Chief Big Bear (Saginaw Grant) frankly tells the Lone Ranger.  Yet, however quixotic this fight may be, the audience recognizes moral justness of the Native American cause and feels their defeat acutely.

However, even this seemingly sympathetic portrayal of the Comanche Nation rings a bit hollow within the film’s greater framework.  The Lone Ranger’s central Native American character, Tonto, is played by an actor who, by his own admission, is only ⅛ “Cherokee or Creek.”  Native American actors, as is Hollywood Custom, are relegated to the cinematic periphery. As refreshing as it is to see a mainstream depiction of westward expansion that acknowledges the horrors perpetrated against Native Americans, this dark chapter of American history still serves as a means to give credence to our hero, our great white hope’s campaign against evil. Similarly, the audience’s established kinship with Tonto doesn’t erase the film’s dependance on stereotypes that cause even the most imperceptive of audience members to at times cringe. The Lone Ranger is a Disney film, after all.

Nonetheless while it may be too much to expect The Lone Ranger to be both historically accurate and politically nuanced (remember Pocahontas?), the Haus of Mouse can and should do better than this.