Sonny Skyhawk (Sicangu Lakota), the veteran Hollywood actor, author of Indian Country Today Media Network’s “Ask N NDN," and founder of American Indians in Film and Television, gave us his thoughts on Johnny Depp in the role of Tonto in the Disney film of The Lone Ranger before he saw the movie .
Here’s his take after viewing it.
Last time we talked you said you weren’t going to go see The Lone Ranger. What changed your mind?
I felt I had to see it in order to be able to talk about it responsibly. But, believe me, I didn’t pay to see it!
So how was it?
The word "movie" was a stretch. Moviegoers have to be able to decipher what a movie is about as is progresses and when you’re 20 minutes into a movie and you’re still trying to figure out what they’re trying to do, the rest of it becomes a big blur. There were explosions and a derailing and crashes and action and all the computer generated images they could come up with and the supposedly funny parts that weren’t funny — and at the end of two hours you’re still wondering, What’s this movie about? Does it have any substance? Is there any logic to it?
You know how they say even bad publicity is good because it creates so much buzz and sells things? Well, this movie had so much bad publicity but it’s still a flop according to the reviews and box office receipts. How do you account for that?
Well, I don’t know that there’s been bad publicity with regard to the Hollywood machine. The Hollywood machine would have you believe that this is a fantastic movie and what’s all the negativity about? That’s the unfortunate part — they don’t have a clue. They didn’t have a clue at the beginning in my talks with Disney…
You talked to them at the beginning?
…I had teleconferences with them when we discussed some of these things. I told them I thought it would go south. I expressed at the time what my feelings were and the fact that having Johnny Depp play Tonto was due for a total crash. And they said, "No, we don’t think so. We have our ducks in a row and we think that Johnny Depp is going to do great.” And I said, "Well, ok! Next point. Why don’t you try and involve the American Indian community if you’re going to shove this down their throat? I would advise that you at least try to get them on your side before you invest in trying to convince them that Johnny Depp is Indian,” and so on. And they said, “No, we have that pretty much in hand also. Johnny Depp is part Indian and we’re going to roll with that” and I said, “Well, you know, the Cherokee Nation, one of the tribes he claims to be from, has vetted his ancestry and none of them are located on their rolls.” And they said, “Well, he thinks he is and so we’re going to roll with that.” I said, “Ok! Good luck!” Those conversations were with a Disney vice president and also a lady by the name of Dawn Jackson, an American Indian who works for Disney in the merchandising department. She’s the go to Indian at Disney when they have a question, like about Pocahontas.
So, they didn’t hear you?
We’re not gloating, but we are doing an I-told-you-so, kind of thing. The problem is that we’ve (American Indians) come this far and we’re still seeing this kind of approach. We had Johnny Depp saying, “I’m going to honor you” and then we end up being dishonored again. The only thing that I can take satisfaction in is that they’re not going to make any money out it. In my experience and in my professional view the $325 million spent on it might make somewhere in the vicinity of $125 million. So among the powers that be who forwarded this movie, heads should roll at Disney because in my best estimation they’re going to lose close to $200 million on this film.
What are the lessons learned, if any, from all this controversy over Johnny Depp and The Lone Ranger?
Well, I don’t think Hollywood will learn anything. They just sequel everything to death. This was, in my mind, a money grab on behalf of Disney. What happened [since it opening on July 3] is indicative. The July 4th period is considered the Super bowl of movie releases; anything released has to have a lot of juice and there has to be a lot of clout as a studio. It’s called a tentpole movie — the name goes back to the circus days when a tent would be erected and everyone would come to see the act. So this was Disney’s tentpole movie of the year. The theater I went to probably holds around 500 people and there were around 30 people in the theater. After the movie was over no one applauded the way they usually do these days. They all left before the credits started. It did put a lot of Indians to work as extras, though — that was a good thing.
So why is it such a bust?
Probably one reason is because people were not willing to see Johnny Depp as Tonto. Audiences are definitely not stupid.
You said Disney didn’t learn anything. Are there lessons for anyone else?
I hope so! I would hope that people got a lot out of this. I certainly did. I appreciate the dialogue that was created by the controversy over this film, and the fact that people were able to consider the opinion of the American Indian in the controversy. That was huge. That to me was worth $325 million because we’ve now become part of the conversation rather than a question mark.
Do you think the controversy in Indian country contributed to it being a flop?
I’m not one to take credit for that although I think we contributed. But most Indian people were divided by what I call age ranges. You have the traditional Indian, then middle of the road educated Indian and the millennials, being the young educated or uneducated Indian and that’s a demographic Hollywood considers. They’re assimilated, they think Johnny Depp is great, they love that there were Indians in the movie and that there was action and that the United States won and killed all the Indians. That is extreme — Indians applauding the fact that other Indians are being killed, that’s the millennials’ point of view. It’s interesting because it goes to the assimilation of our people and the whitewashing that occurs in America.
The whole controversy and conversation over Johnny Depp and The Lone Ranger over the past year reminds me of the controversy and conversation that took place after we found out that the code name for Osama bin Laden was Geronimo during the assassination project May 1, 2011. Do these controversies and conversations help raise awareness nationally about Native Americans today and Native issues?
I definitely think there’s a connection because for the first time you’re hearing from a segment of this population, with the message that we’re not going to stand idly by anymore — not to take anything from the Idle No More movement — and watch the images or the names of our people trashed or used in any way anymore without us having some kind of say.
I think the Idle No More Movement is part of that, don’t you?
Sure! Of course! And you multiply that by the different social platforms in existence — Twitter, Facebook — all of that has a bearing and Hollywood understands that. They realize they can’t pull the wool over people’s eyes anymore because there are too many forms of communication out there and we as Indians access those same methods. Consequently, Geronimo as a code word and the fact that Disney was trying to shove down our throat that Johnny Depp was Indian multiplied the whole issue. We’ve entered the national and international conversation about that fact that we do care about our images and we’re willing to speak out when they’re abused or misused.
But the Hollywood image of the Indian endures?
Hollywood invented the western originally from a racist ideology: All Indians are the same, all Indians are uncaring savages and heathens. Extend that to today and it still works. Indians are still being portrayed as savage and their genocide is still justified even in this move. There’s a scene where the Custer character — and he looks just like Custer — is standing next to a Gatling gun and the soldier manning the gun lets loose and kills all the Indians.
Did they show Custer’s demise?
No, they show Custer killing Indians. That’s the key to the whole thing, that’s why they wanted to show Custer next to this Gatling gun. I think the moral of the story, if there I one, is that Hollywood was trumped by greed. Greed took over any effort to make a real movie out of this Lone Ranger and Tonto scenario. Greed is what they came in with and what they came out with in the end was a mishmash that doesn’t make any sense and misrepresents our people. The only profit that Disney is going to see from The Lone Ranger is the licensing fees for the Halloween costumes for Johnny Depp’s Tonto.