Passing for Brown

I try and stay away from arguments discussing whether or not white actors/musicians/celebrities get a “hood” or “ghetto” pass, perhaps because I myself don’t feel like I own the right to decide who is or is not eligible for one.

But it only seems appropriate to bring up this topic today, on Columbus Indigenous People’s Day (yes, that’s what San Francisco calls it). Every racial group gives passes.

Or can make arguments to hand them out…

But it’s 2012, and while there may be a few lone folk out there who can get passes into the inner circles of some ethnic groups, it’s never easy any more to see Hollywood so easily give out passes for brown/asian/red. Some exceptions might be made for parody or satire or sketch like SNL, but after saying for 4 years, Fred Armisen’s Obama is good, but why can’t they just hire a black guy, Jay Pharoah is making SNL look dumb for not doing it sooner.

That aside, the new trailer making its way around the internet for Lone Ranger,(see what I did up there) starring whats-his-face and Johnny Depp, as Tonto, has me puzzled. Puzzled because I don’t know if I’m supposed to be offended or not that he’s playing a Native person- though I know he claims some unknown percentage of one tribe or another. Oh yeah, and he was apparently “adopted” by the Comanche Nation to make his Tonto portrayal kosher.

Needless to say, I’m torn. Does Johnny get a pass for that? Or does he get a pass because he’s Johnny-Fricken-Depp? Initially I felt the latter, and still, in considering some of his other roles, I can’t help but feel compelled to say it’s true. Johnny Depp can do little harm, because he’s Johnny-Fricken-Depp.

Holding as much judgement as possible (I know, that’s hard for me) until I see the film, I will not simply say, Johnny Depp can do know wrong, despite the fact that I think we all secretly feel that way. So for now, consider with me, Depp’s collection of roles and potential passes.


I don’t care what you say, Jack Sparrow is ambiguously raced as ever so he’s likely a mutt.

He’s done, creepy old white guy…

Latin Drag Queen…

Mad Irishmen…

Oompaloompa & Repressed German…


I mean let’s face it- he’s even played an amphibian and a K-Pop star, twice!  So while we await the release and buzz for Lone Ranger, I guess our real question should be in the mean time what CAN’T he do?

So, I guess, if a man, who in his every day life, can be a boho-hippie-rockstar-bluegrassy-hipster can play all of those roles above, maybe can be adopted by a native nation and play a fictional indigenous man painted like WWE’s Sting. Stranger things have happened.



About Niki

Niki Magtoto is an education reformer, writer/ranter interested in race, pop culture, the San Francisco Giants and sneakers. Find her rants over at She got jokes on Twitter @nikimagtotally.

08. October 2012 by Niki
Categories: Media Diversity, Movies, People of Color in Media, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 1 comment

One Comment

  1. This is an actor’s problem: You aren’t the person you’re playing. We don’t expect to hire only murderers to play murderers, at the extreme end. But at the shallower end, we don’t seem to have a problem with various white people playing other kinds of white people. Why was Anthony Quinn, a Mexican, cast as Zorba the Greek? Raul Julia as Guido Contini in Nine only to have Jonathan Pryce, Antonio Banderas, and Daniel Day-Lewis follow up? Has an actual Italian ever played that part?

    That said, I understand that there is a difference when it comes to the dominant culture. When you’re in a position of privilege, then that means that there is always room for you. It doesn’t mean the same when a white character is played by another white person who is only a little off. After all, “It’s called ‘acting.’”

    To me, the question is always: Why are you doing it that way? I have no problem with a director who has a reason for why they did what they did. But it should be more than just, “Because.” I’ve seen Romeo and Juliet set in pre-revolutionary Cuba where the Capulets were Hispanic military and the Montagues were black farmers. And it worked. The director was using the story to comment on the situation it was set in. I’ve seen Fiona Shaw play Richard III, Helen Mirren play Prospero (and was in a production of the Tempest where our Prospero was played by a woman), and more.

    So when it comes to Depp playing Tonto, I have to ask why. Just what is it about this character that makes us think that Depp is the one to play it? He has a type of character he plays and it really makes me wonder exactly what kind of movie this is supposed to be. In looking back at his over-the-top makeup parts, I see nothing but buffoons: The Mad Hatter, Willy Wonka, Jack Sparrow, Barnabus, these are not exactly the most upright of people. But what made them work was a film where that buffoonery was integral to the plot. They were either the main character or were required by the main character to achieve the climax of the film.

    But to have Tonto put in this role with the Lone Ranger? I’m worried that this will wander into insult all too easily. In some sense, I’m concerned more over what they’re doing to Tonto the character than the fact that they got a white person to play it.

    I’m very conflicted and I get the feeling the only way to find out will be to watch the film (I know…shock and horror! Actually see something before passing judgement!) But that means if it goes down the racism road, I’ll have paid money to support it.

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