The hysteria over Johnny Depp as Tonto is (probably) in its denoument: The Lone Ranger opened to terrible reviews and disappointing box office numbers, and American Indians who didn't like the idea of Depp as a Native icon were to some extent vindicated. There will be some pieces to pick up and some lessons learned, but a lot of questions have been answered.
Here's one that is still up for debate: Was the Lone Ranger story simply too much of a relic from less enlightened times? Was the whole shooting match, as Jason Bailey writes at Flavorwire, "too racist to reboot"?
Bailey notes that, despite Depp's lip service to a Tonto who would break with tradition, the character as played still "maintains the most culturally damaging element of the role, his definite article-free dialogue, with lines like, 'Do not touch rock. Rock cursed.'" Bailey describes the plotline of The Lone Ranger as a narrative that has been "twisted … into pretzels" to try not to be racist — and yet still is. The entire concept of the Lone Ranger and Tonto — a team up that was historically unlikely, to put it mildly — might just be unredeemable. Bailey brings up Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice, which was made into a major film as recently as 2004, and says "maybe we just don’t need to tell this story anymore, since it — though a classic, and an important piece of literature, etc. etc. — is deeply, unavoidably, problematically anti-Semitic."
In a long interview posted to the Moviefone Canada site, Jesse Wente of the Toronto International Film Festival grants that those involved with the film may very well have intended to empower Tonto, but ended up with a character that is less progressive than the Native sidekicks played by Chief Dan George in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Gary Farmer in Dead Man (1995). And ultimately, Wente said, there is just a problem with the traditional Western. "Because of the nature of the Western, its ties to the idea of nationhood, particularly in the U.S.," he said. "These stories were, with Manifest Destiny, fundamental nation building [myths] for the U.S. If you think about the classic era of the Western, from the early '30s to the '50s, it came when the States was still a very young country and still needed to tell itself the story of its own origins, and this was the story it told. Unfortunately, it was told at the expense of the first inhabitants of this land because it altered the history, the truth of what happened. To me this film recalls a lot of those issues."
An article at Time.com suggested that "the issue isn’t so much the casting as it is the character." Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations pointed out that Tonto is, unfortunately, one of just a few Native people — real or fictional — that non-Indians know of. The risk is that his quirks or character traits may be applied to an entire race: "Without an accurate pop-culture idea of a real-life Native American in moviegoers’ heads, Tonto is less of an individual character than he is a key piece of the popular image of a large and diverse population. The stereotype is particularly detrimental for its fantastical elements, [Keene] believes: when a real group of people seems as mystical as say, werewolves, in every pop-culture depiction of the group, it gets hard to pay any attention to the real people who are alive today and have real issues and achievements of their own."
In a piece for Slate entitled "Johnny Depp’s Tonto: Not as Racist as You Might Think. But Still Kind of Racist," Aisha Harris was more forgiving than others, but still couldn't get past the limitations of the source material. "Depp’s attempt to be a 'warrior' role model to all the American Indian kids lucky enough to watch him save the day fails—and for the simple reason that the original material is too entrenched in an essentially racist ideology."
It appears that, despite the filmmakers' intentions, The Lone Ranger did not reinvent Tonto or the Tonto-Ranger dynamic — and perhaps it's because America has simply moved on. Is there any reinventing of Unce Remus from Song of the South, or Chop Chop from the old Blackhawk comic books? Arguably not. While a Native actor such as Adam Beach (often mentioned as a better fit for Tonto) might have been a more pleasing casting choice, in this case Depp's insistence on playing Tonto actually saved a Native actor the awkwardness of trying to sell viewers a story they were never going to buy.