Lately I’ve noticed a lot more of those Native American memes as I scroll through my various web feeds (maybe it’s because Thanksgiving is coming up?). You know what I’m talking about—pretty little pictures of serene and wise (and sad) Native Americans with some kind of superimposed message about listening to your elders and/or being one with the Earth. For some reason, a significant number of people really love spreading those around (I’m looking at you, elderly relatives). I’m not really sure why—maybe it’s something to do with looking for meaning in an increasingly post-Christian world. There are so many problems with those little memes; I won’t go into them all here. But some filmmakers have taken on a similar attitude. How do film versions of Native American religious beliefs match up to the real thing?
Are you excited for this movie? I know I am. However, I’m a little torn on whether or not I’m actually willing to spend money to go see it. On the one hand, actually supporting this movie by seeing it might be irresponsible. On the other hand, seeing Johnny Depp’s oh-so-not-racist portrayal of a Native American might be too good an opportunity to pass up.
This is not a movie I have high expectations for. To be honest, I really don’t know that much about Native Americans, their cultures, their tribes, etc. Unfortunately, I have the distinct feeling that neither do the makers of this movie, with the possible exception of Johnny Depp himself.
Johnny Depp plays the character Tonto, an imaginary Native American. Okay, no big deal, right? Except, the design of Tonto in this movie is based off a painting from a white man’s interpretation of Tonto. This painting:
Other than not being a Native American himself, Jack Sparrow does look pretty much like this inaccurate portrayal. In fact, he looks just like Jack Sparrow with face paint and a bird on his head. I’m guessing this isn’t going to do much for representation. Johnny Depp even said in an interview that he took this part to change how things are for Native Americans in movies, to show them that they’re “still warriors.” To be fair, however, Native Americans for the most part seem to be pretty excited for Depp’s portrayal, and Depp is a member of the Comanche tribe. I should mention, however, that Depp is not Comanche by blood, and he only was adopted into the tribe after filming the movie. He has said that he guesses he has some Cherokee in him, but until now, he hasn’t participated in that heritage. I want to assume that the Native Americans interviewed about Depp’s part know more about their culture than I do, but I don’t think anything here is leading up to a non-racist portrayal.
Depp might be part Cherokee. Good for him. I’m distantly related to some Cherokee people too, but that doesn’t mean I know anything about the culture. And it certainly doesn’t mean I can represent it in any manner. In the end, I really think that this movie should have just cast an actual Native American for the role.
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. I truly hope that this won’t be racist, outside the white-washing. Otherwise, this looks like it would be an interesting movie.
There have been many issues around race and comic book movies over the years. Marvel I feel has been the most notable with casting black actors in typically white roles. Alicia in Fantastic Four was black instead of the usual blonde-haired, blue-eyed character she is in the comics. Nick Fury, now played by Samuel L. Jackson is black, and perhaps the most controversial, Idris Elba played the Norse god Heimdall in Thor.