Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
Back in 2009, Johnny Depp was announced for the role of Mexican revolutionary general Pancho Villa in Seven Friends of Pancho Villa and the Woman With Six Fingers. In late February 2011 it was rumored that Depp had dropped out of the project, citing scheduling conflicts. Depp would later discuss his ambivalence about the project while promoting Rango in March 2011.
“Well, that’s really a project that I think is a little bit up in the air, you know. [Director Emir] Kusturica is an old friend, and certainly a filmmaker that I admire greatly. From the first second that we spoke about it, I always had a bit of a problem. My dilemma is just the fact that it’s Pancho Villa. It is Pancho Villa, and it’s one of the great heroes of Mexico. And for me, I feel like it should be played by a Mexican, and not some, you know –not some mutt from Kentucky, you know what I mean? I think I still feel very strongly about that. And so yeah, it’s sort of floating at the moment.” - Johnny Depp
Whether or not Depp will be taking on the role of Pancho Villa is still uncertain.
Mexican American actors still face barriers in breaking into Hollywood. A 2006 UCLA study for the Chicano Studies Research Center found that in 2005, only 5.2% of casting breakdowns requested Latino actors and only 1.2% of lead roles went to Latino actors. On the practice of “brownface” –the practice of non-Latinos playing Latinos–filmmaker Moctesuma Esparza recently said, “It says that [Hollywood] thinks we don’t have the talent to play ourselves.”
We hope that Seven Friends of Pancho Villa will be an opportunity for Hollywood to introduce new Mexican American acting talent to moviegoers.
Last year, Depp drew ire from Native American communities when he was cast to play the role of Tonto in Disney’s remake of The Lone Ranger (2012).
The Tonto character has a complicated history. Although Canadian Mohawk First Nations actor Jay Silverheels played Tonto from 1949 to 1957, rather than a white actor in redface, the character was depicted as speaking stunted English and as a diminished sidekick to the Lone Ranger.
According to Johnny Depp: A Biography by Michael Blitz and Louise Krasniewicz, Depp’s great-grandmother Minnie Wells and maternal grandfather Walter Wells were Cherokee. On his casting as Tonto, Depp told Entertainment Weekly:
“I always felt Native Americans were badly portrayed in Hollywood films over the decades,” he says. “It’s a real opportunity for me to give a salute to them. Tonto was a sidekick in all the Lone Ranger series. [This film] is a very different approach to that partnership. And a funny one I think.”
In an editorial in the Santa Fe New Mexican, Harlan McKosato, who is optimistic about the movie, pointed out Depp referred to Native Americans as “them” instead of “us.”
While Depp has been fortunate to portray a wide variety of characters, including several white leading characters like Ed Wood, Ichabod Crane, and J.M. Barrie, many actors of Native American descent have not received similar opportunities, are not able to access roles written as white characters, and are limited to auditioning for the small pool of available roles for Native American characters. This is important to remember when critiquing Hollywood’s preference to continually cast “big name” stars to play characters of color.