Arts & Entertainment | Opinion

Meredith Simons: Playing Indian is an old tradition in Hollywood

Burt Lancaster as an "Apache" in the 1954 film. Still image from YouTube

Meredith Simons comes up with a list of 100 films in which White actors portrayed people of color. Examples of actors playing Indian include Burt Lancaster, who took the lead role in Apache from 1954 and Johnny Depp, who was the prominent Indian sidekick in The Lone Ranger from 2013:
The Internet was shocked — shocked! — to learn this week that white guy Joseph Fiennes has been cast as African American icon Michael Jackson in a TV movie. But anyone who’s surprised at this news hasn’t been paying attention. Despite decades of protests over racially inappropriate casting, and the recent protests over the lack of diversity among Oscar nominees, filmmakers continue to cast white actors as minority characters on a depressingly regular basis.

Just how common is this practice? Take a look:

“Winchester ’73,” 1950: Rock Hudson, a white actor of German, Swiss, English and Irish descent, played a Native American character named Young Bull, who delivered the memorable line, “All white men are thieves.” Of movie parts as well as land, apparently.

“Apache,” 1954: Just go ahead and guess what kind of character Burt Lancaster played here.

“The Outsider,” 1961: Tony Curtis, a white actor of Hungarian descent, played Ira Hamilton Hayes, a Native American soldier creatively nicknamed “Chief.”

“Stay Away, Joe,” 1968: Elvis Presley played Joe Lightcloud, a Native American character.

“Avatar: The Last Airbender,” 2010: In the anime series that inspired this movie, all the characters were Asian or Native American. In the film version, the three primary protagonists had been transformed into white characters—only the villain remained a person of color.

“The Lone Ranger,” 2013: Johnny Depp played Native American sidekick Tonto. Don’t worry though; Depp was adopted into the Comanche Nation the year before the movie was released.

“Aloha,” 2015: Fair-skinned Emma Stone played the lead, who was written as a mixed-race character with a Swedish mother and a half-Chinese, half-Native Hawaiian father.

Get the Story:
Meredith Simons: 100 times a white actor played someone who wasn’t white (The Washington Post 1/28)

Related Stories:
Doug George-Kanentiio: Oscar boycott ignores plight of Natives (1/20)
History: Burt Reynolds portrays 'Navajo Joe' in film from 1966 (5/7)

Join the Conversation