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Johnny Depp’s Tonto misstep: Race and “The Lone Ranger”

Johnny Depp has tossed on a lot of outlandish costumes in his long career. In the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, he plays a buccaneer; in "Dark Shadows," a vampire; in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," an androgynous confectioner.

And with today's new release "The Lone Ranger," he's adding "American Indian" to the pile of personas he's tried on -- and scholars of American Indian history are not pleased.

Depp, who has claimed in the past to have Indian heritage (a claim that Indian Country Today, a media network for the American Indian community, has contested), is playing Tonto, one of the longest-running Indian characters in American media. It's also an intensely problematic one. Depp, who was adopted into the Comanche Nation after signing on to "The Lone Ranger," claims that his role is a "salute" to American Indians, and "Smoke Signals" director Chris Eyre, an American Indian, has said, "I completely respect Johnny Depp for making this movie happen and for him to try and rewrite Tonto for a new generation." Some critics, including Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, have found bright spots in the film even while acknowledging the problems inherent in its casting. Depp has screened the film for the Comanche nation -- with many leaders of various tribes in attendance -- and Disney donated proceeds from the Los Angeles premiere to the American Indian College Fund.

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