Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger was one of the biggest flops of 2013. In addition to being a pretty bad film, it was deservedly criticized for casting a white actor, Johnny Depp, as the Comanche sidekick Tonto. Granted The Lone Ranger is an aesthetically and politically irremediable film, it provides an interesting case study in how sidekicks are being reimagined. The sidekick can be distinguished from the “buddy,” because the sidekick is subordinate to the hero. Despite their junior status, sidekicks have begun to serve as dissonant voices in movies and television. The original TV Tonto (Jay Silverheels) was a docile and doting life partner to the Lone Ranger, but Depp’s Tonto, despite his minstrel clowning, relentlessly scowls at John Reid, the Lone Ranger. When Reid asks Tonto what ‘kemosabe’ means, Tonto replies, “wrong brother.” Behind the joke is a caustic inversion of the supposed meaning of kemosabe in the ordinal series, “trusty scout.” Likewise, when the Lone Ranger first exclaims his battle cry “Hi-yo, Silver, Away!” Depp’s Tonto scolds, “Don’t ever do that again.” This Tonto resists the programmatic of the film. He is a dissenting voice within a text that would like so much to render him inert. Despite the films best attempts to ally Reid (and white audiences) with the Indian sidekick, Tonto rejects this brotherly affection. The racism of the original television series haunts the new film and can neither be suppressed nor re-integrated into the new text.
Numerous other sidekicks in contemporary media refuse to get with the program and assert dissonant voices. In period pieces, women and people of color often function as persistent reminders of racism and sexism in American history: Elam Ferguson in Hell on Wheels, Dr. Algernon Edwards in The Knick, Peggy Olson in Mad Men, and Virginia Johnson in The Masters of Sex. But do these examples challenge us to confront this history, or do they offer anodyne stories of marginalized peoples overcoming social inequality? Genre pieces and adaptations feature dissonant sidekicks: Joan Watson in Elementary, Henry Standing Bear in Longmire, Kato in The Green Hornet film, and Lana Kane in Archer. These characters often mock the white male protagonist and call into question—however implicitly—their exercise of white male privilege. But do these dissonant voices represent a real challenge or merely a perfunctory acknowledgment of privilege that nevertheless leaves it intact?