Racial backdrop hurts classic film

Say this, at least, for The Lone Ranger: they got a really, really pretty horse.

The controversial blockbuster, based on the long-running radio and television series of the same name, is a strange exercise in poor filmmaking layered on top of great, which is layered on top of poor again. The main source of controversy is Tonto (Johnny Depp in redface), a spiritual American Indian who finds John Reid (Armie Hammer) dead at an ambush. After a horse tells Tonto Reid is a great warrior and brings him back to life, the duo travel together hunting Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), who lead the ambush.Image

First thing’s first: When is redface OK?

Never. Redface is never OK.

Depp, who “believes” he has some Cherokee in him and was adopted by the Comanche Nation during filming, steps into the most recognized American Indian role in fiction — and the most pejorative. Tonto speaks in a pidgin, is pretty stupid when not using his psychic Indian powers, and won’t stop feeding the taxidermy raven he wears on his head. He’s the iconic Magic Red Man character, and having him played by a man who is caucasian as they come and in real life embodies the maybe-I’m-an-Indian-maybe-I’m-not-who-cares stereotype because Gore Verbinski wanted to direct Captain Jack Sparrow again is pretty edgy.

It’s a shame Depp’s mere presence is a problem, because he acquits himself quite well, as do Hammer and Fichtner. They do so despite a script that is weird and full of too many different things. Helena Bonham Carter’s madam character and a subplot with Ruth Wilson as Rebecca Reid both intrude frequently on and take away from the main plot. The movie is long, and it feels long.

The Lone Ranger wants so badly to be a blockbuster. It wants to have action and comedy and romance and racial equality metaphors and it just doesn’t. The romantic subplot feels like a spare part, and all attempts at comedy are awkward at best. It delivers on the action, particularly with its wonderfully chaotic finale, and the racial equality metaphors … ah …

The Lone Ranger’s main story uncovers a plot in which a wild west gang and a railroad tycoon use agent provocateur tactics to start a war with the Comanche so they can get their hands on a silver mine. The Comanche in the film, Tonto aside, are portrayed completely without racism, which is always a difficult thing to do when you absolutely have to address their race. Tonto calls out white men for various flaws, all of which are both embodied and subverted when the entire cast is taken into account. With the American Indian genocide is a backdrop for the main story, it’s very difficult to pin this movie down and call it racist. There are certainly racist things in it, but the movie itself? It’s difficult to say.

Stupid lines, random poop jokes and spots where the director obviously told Depp to just be weird for a few minutes pervade and drag The Lone Ranger down, but beautiful shots and powerful story sequences are sprinkled in randomly. The difference is jarring, and it’s hard to know what quality of film to expect from scene to scene.

For me, the action, the camerawork and the nostalgia-driven story outweigh the poor technical work. Though I can’t say it’s good, the movie definitely has soul.

Joshua Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, journalism and film student at the University of North Texas and a staff writer for the NT Daily. He is beyond embarrassment and well into amusement with regards to the Texas State Legislature. For questions, rebuttals and further guidance about cinema, you can reach him at reelentropy@gmail.com. At this point, I’d like to remind you that you shouldn’t actually go to movies and form your own opinions. That’s what I’m here for. Be sure to come back later this week for a review of Despicable Me 2.

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1 Response to Racial backdrop hurts classic film

  1. Pingback: ’60s adaptation aggressively, overwhelmingly funny | reelentropy

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