When Disney first announced Johnny Depp would be playing Tonto, there was a lot of backlash from the Native American community. After all, there are so few parts written for Native Americans, and Hollywood was just going to hand one of the most famous Native American characters to a white actor.
The PR machine pushed back, reminding everyone that Depp had Cherokee (or maybe Creek Indian) blood in his veins courtesy of his great-grandmother. That seemed a bit disingenuous, since most Americans whose ancestors predated the Irish influx could claim the same, regardless of their skin color.
I had opted to reserve judgment. But no longer. This TV spot on Yahoo, set to air during the Super Bowl, highlights everything protestors were worried about. Depp has only a single line, “Justice is what I seek, kemosabe,” but that line is enough to make you cringe. The broken English, the stonefaced delivery, the traditional warpaint on noticeable Caucasian features all combine to give the viewer the uneasy sensation they’re participating in Native American blackface.
But let’s back it up to figure out what is so jarring. After all, Depp is saying everything his character would. Everyone knows “kemosabe” is Tonto’s signature line; it even predates the television show. First used by director James Jewell during The Lone Ranger radio series, the phrase supposedly translates from Potawatomi as “trusty scout” or “faithful friend.” It is a term of endearment Tonto uses for The Lone Ranger. So why does it sound so wrong?
Partly because of Depp’s cold delivery. His face doesn’t move, in what could be a stoic moment but comes across as an attempt to portray Native Americans as hard and aloof. Depp drops “kemosabe” like a dead weight from his mouth. It’s so obviously foreign, like forcing yourself to call your significant other by a pet name you’d never use in million years. The words come out, but they don’t sound right. And while the line is grammatically correct, the hesitation between words still calls back to the days of “How! Greetings, Paleface” stuck in our collective memory, making us flinch.
One has to wonder, if this the part Disney is highlighting, how uncomfortable will it get?