I love westerns. I love them dearly. Some of my favorite movies of all time are westerns, pointing specifically at The Searchers and the modern remake of 3:10 to Yuma, and then down among the “movies I love but aren’t top 10” there are too many to list. There’s something very powerful to me about westerns, possibly because I grew up in the American West, but also because they are perfect venues for stories about morality. The Old West was a unique situation in world history, where modern, civilized people were thrown together in a barbaric and uncivilized place–the same open emptiness that gave them freedom also took them away from law and society, and the best Westerns deal with this contradiction head-on. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance presents Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne as opposite sides of this coin–one representing law and the other representing violence–and makes the very complex, even tragic point that while law may be better, it can’t exist without violence. Out on the plains and miles away from civilization you can have as many laws as you want, but they’re not going to matter unless your local police have more guns than your local criminals. This is true everywhere, and at the end of the day all law extends from the threat of violence, but westerns are an almost perfect venue for exploring that concept in detail. In a western the social pressures are different: people are good or bad not because society is forcing them to be, but because they are making the conscious choice to be so.
I love westerns so much that I am often tempted to write one, and in fact I have several westerns in the back of my mind, waiting for the day that I have enough time in my schedule to write something I probably won’t get a lot of money out of. Western movies are on the rise, but western books, as a market, are still incredibly hard to sell. When I contributed to the Monsters and Mormons anthology I wrote a western novella (albeit with zombies and superpowers), which was fun, but it didn’t really sate my appetite so much as whet it. I want to write more. But there’s another big reason I haven’t taken the plunge, much more important than the money, and it’s this: I don’t know how to properly portray the Indians.
Even that word is bad–Indians–but the trouble is that I don’t even have a really solid fix on a sensitive alternative. I’ve been told, by a Native American, that we should say “Native American” because “Indian” is insulting, but I’ve also been told, by a different man from a different tribe, that we should say “American Indian” because “Native” is insulting. My research online suggests that the second guy’s opinion is far less common, and “Native American” or just plain “Native” is the accepted terminology, but the mere fact that there’s a difference of opinion makes this a very hard question to answer. And this isn’t even the problem with writing a book–if I were to write one I would just use the specific tribal names and be done with it. The bigger problem is how to present them as characters and a culture. I don’t want to use the old excuse that “everyone thought of them as savages, so it’s okay to portray them that way,” but I also don’t want to get so involved with showing their side of things that it takes over the story, but I also don’t want to just ignore them. They were a huge part of life in the old west, and their story deserves to be told, but it deserves to be told properly, and I’m just very leery about my ability to do that.
Which brings us to the new Lone Ranger movie. The trailer looks cool–the ideal mix of action and justice and heroism that a Lone Ranger story should have–and, yes, it looks like the movie is making Tonto a bigger character and trying to make the two leads a little more equal than they have been in the past. But on the other hand, the movie trailer really screams “a bunch of white people made this movie without actually talking to anyone from the Native culture they’re attempting to portray.” Despite my complaints about not knowing much about Native American culture, I at least know enough to recognize that Tonto’s costume in the movie is a weird mish-mash of different tribes and some crazy made-up crap that looks good on camera. Tonto’s breastplate, for example, is clearly from a plains culture, but the headband is very southwest. The do-rag, of course, is pure Captain Jack Sparrow, and the bird on his head is classic “hollywood production designer” with no basis in any Native culture I’m familiar with. And, of course, Johnny Depp himself is not Native–he has said in interviews that “I guess I have some Native American [in me] somewhere down the line…Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian,” but that’s like hiring me to play a Norwegian guy: sure, my great-grandma was Norwegian, but that doesn’t mean I look, speak, or act Norwegian in any way, and have nothing to contribute to a Norwegian role that an actual Norwegian guy couldn’t do better. I suppose the point could be made that a modern Native American is so culturally removed from an 1860s-ish Native American that they wouldn’t really have anything to add in the role either, especially considering that Tonto isn’t based on an existing tribe anyway, but at that point you’re using the movie’s inaccuracy to justify its own inaccuracy, which is fairly useless ground to walk on.
I’ve written before about race-bending in movie casting, and my opinions of it are layered but generally very solidly on the “don’t do it” side. Last summer at Comic-Con I had a meeting with a big-name production company about a potential PARTIALS movie (and no, I can’t yet tell you who it was), and one of the biggest questions I asked them was if they were prepared to actually cast an Indian girl as Kira (not Native American, but actual Indian). It’s very important to me to get this right. One of the best movies I saw in 2012 was Argo, a based-on-real-life story about a CIA expert extracting hostages from Iran; it was excellent, and I loved every minute, and I think Ben Affleck deserves a Best Director Oscar for it, but Affleck also played the CIA guy, who in real life was Latino. The closing credits showed a fascinating slide show of side-by-side photos, comparing the movie characters and sets and images to their real-life counterparts, and I wanted to stand up and cheer for their amazing attention to detail…but then we got to the shot of the very white Ben Affleck, followed by a shot of the very Mexican Tony Mendez, and it felt jarring and wrong. Yes, Affleck did a good job in the role–his acting wasn’t as stellar as his directing, but it was good. But how cool would it have been to give that same role to a Mexican actor? Someone who’s sick of playing drug dealers on Breaking Bad, or gangsters in Southland, and would absolutely nail a role as a handsome, dashing, Mexican-American hero? And how cool would it have been–and this is the much bigger point for me–for a Latino kid or teen or even adult to be able to go to the theater and see this amazing movie and be presented with a hero who looks like them, someone they can identify with, someone who lets them see themselves in a leading role? I didn’t understand the real importance of this–of kids who want to see themselves as their heroes–until my daughters started asking me for more books and movies about girls. Growing up white and male I could always see myself as the heroes of my favorite stories, but it isn’t that easy for everyone else, and a movie like Argo, or PARTIALS, or even The Lone Ranger is an amazing chance to do that. I don’t believe that casting the wrong race is inherently evil, but I do think it’s a tragic missed opportunity. We should be going out of our way to find and create those opportunities, and then do the very best we can with them. And The Lone Ranger, instead of taking that opportunity, appears to have run the other direction.
I’m not saying the movie will be horrible, or even that the character of Tonto will be horrible–all I’ve seen is a two-minute trailer, and for all I know Tonto is presented as a culturally-empowering, three-dimensional hero. But I am saying that I doubt it greatly. I want to love this movie because I love westerns, and I want people to make more of them, and I love the things they can say about humanity and the exciting, iconic ways they can say them. But I have grave doubts about Tonto, and I wanted to put them out there.