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Johnny Depp's Tonto And Native Americans On The Big Screen


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. And it's time, yet again, for our weekly visit to the barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news, what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael, Arsalan Iftikhar - he's senior editor of The Islamic Monthly and founder of TheMuslimGuy.com.

They're both joining us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Mario Loyola joins us again, as well. He's columnist for the National Review and chief counsel at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He joins us from member station KUT. And joining me here - we're lonely in the Washington, D.C. studios - Corey Dade, contributing editor for The Root. Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Celeste. Hey, fellas, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

ARSALON IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.

COREY DADE: What up, Jimi?

IFTIKHAR: We need some caffeine in this joint.

IZRAEL: Yeah, I mean, what's up with that? Did somebody put some bourbon in the coffee, coffee mug? What's good everybody? Super Mario, my dude. Hello? OK, well...

HEADLEE: He's fallen asleep.

IFTIKHAR: Forget that.


DADE: He's still at his Fourth of July party.

IZRAEL: I can dig it. Well, you know what, let's dig in, man. We're ready to talk, we're ready to kind of kick back and think about the Fourth, I know. But it started early in Egypt. Celeste, give us a breakdown of what happened.

HEADLEE: Sure, Jimi. Protests were simmering all week until Thursday afternoon. The military overthrew the elected Egyptian President, Mohammad Morsi, took him and other senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood into custody, where they remain. When news broke that Morsi had been ousted, thousands of people in Egypt celebrated in the streets. Others are protesting what they see as the armed overthrow of a legitimate democratically elected leader.

IZRAEL: Wow, thanks, Celeste. Tough break for President Mohammed Morsi. I ate ribs with that dude. Yo, Arsalan, A-train.

IFTIKHAR: Yes, sir.

IZRAEL: The U.S. hasn't quite buckled down and called this a coup just yet. What's up with that?

IFTIKHAR: Well, actually, it's a very tactical move on the part of the Obama administration. You know, under United States law, if the administration admits that there has been a coup in Egypt, then that would basically say that the $1.3 billion dollars in aid that goes to Egypt's military would have to be suspended.

And so that was a political move on the part of the administration. Now the African Union has suspended Egypt from its rank of members, because it does call it a coup, as do most people, because, you know, if it walks like a coup and talks like a coup, it probably is a coup.

IZRAEL: Yeah, that's what we say around my house. Mario Loyola, super Mario, you used to work in the Pentagon and were a foreign policy adviser to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee. How does this look for the U.S. here in the states?

MARIO LOYOLA: Well, I think the question of whether it's a coup or not a coup is particularly important from the point of view of U.S. diplomacy, like, what's the official position of the U.S. government on this. And from the very beginning, I mean, from the time that Hosni Mubarak was facing protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo more than two years ago, the administration was sort refusing to take a position on the key constitutional question, which is, you know, first of all, in this case, has the Muslim Brotherhood violated the Constitution while it was in power, or was the Constitution itself somehow illegitimate?

Well, the administration is sort of, you know, kind of ceding to the crowd, which seems to be wanting to have it both ways. The administration seems to be wanting to have it both ways. I think that the administration needs to take a position on these internal constitutional questions, because otherwise, there's no principled basis for diplomatic recognition of one government or another, and all you're left with is a very, I would say, you know, undignified policy driven by constraints, such as what Arsalan just pointed to, you know, conditions on military aid or not. I mean, we have to, people have to know whether the U.S. government believes that its partners around the world are legitimate or not.

IZRAEL: Corey Dade, you know, it seems like just yesterday, it was all a dream, and we were talking about the Morsi election, and we were all celebrating, and it seemed like he got Sandmanned, you know, a la "Showtime at the Apollo," you know. I mean, he barely got in there good and somebody came along and shuffled along and got the hook and tried to yank him out. Were you surprised when this happened?

DADE: You know, I don't think we can be completely surprised that this is happening, given how long it took to establish democracy after Mubarak, and the fact that civil unrest never truly ended. I think this time, though, this is a greater concern, because, you know, the people of Egypt were mostly supportive of Mubarak's overthrow. Of course, now we have a democratically elected leader, and he comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, which is arguably the most powerful political organization in Egypt, and his followers have vowed to keep him in office if it means their own death.

So now we're talking about two different sides of this in Egypt, and both are not only, you know, exercised over it, but one has enormous amount of influence. This is, perhaps, a bigger problem than when Mubarak was overthrown and they were pursuing democracy then.

IZRAEL: OK, thank you for that, Corey. So there's other big news that's been going on all week, the George Zimmerman trial. He's the man of accused of killing unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.

HEADLEE: Prosecution is wrapping up as we speak. The defense is expected to start their arguments next week. The shooting and the trial have really sparked, or maybe continued, in this particular case, a conversation about race relations in the U.S.

IZRAEL: Yeah, Corey Dade - thank you, Celeste - you know, for me, this feels like the new O.J. trial. And you're over there, you're on my old stomping grounds at The Root.

DADE: I am.

IZRAEL: Yeah, but it seems like the whole country is following this on TV. Is there anyone left in the country who hasn't already made up their minds about this?

DADE: You know, probably the jury. I think from that from the outside looking in, there is broad agreement from laymen, from legal experts, that the state has not, at this point, proved its burden that Zimmerman committed second-degree murder when he shot Trayvon Martin. And for starters, people need to understand that, in Florida, that's a pretty high bar. They have to prove that Zimmerman acted with malice, with ill will, with spite, hatred, you know.

They have to prove intent. And at this point, there, for every sort of point that they've been able to score, the defense has been able to raise a counterpoint. Today, on Friday, I'll say that one of the, probably the most dramatic moment in the trial came when Trayvon Martin's mother, Sabrina Fulton, testified, and she said that the voice heard screaming for help on one of the 911 calls was indeed Trayvon Martin's. So that was, that certainly has an emotional value.

There's no audio expert that was allowed to testify in this case that would confirm that. In fact, an FBI expert said that it was inconclusive. But this is a trial that, at this point, you know, the time is running out for the state, and, you know, defense is probably going to take over and present its case on Monday. And it'll probably be a pretty short presentation, because they have the momentum probably on their side.

IZRAEL: A-train, Arsalan, everyone I talk to about this seems to think they're some kind of, I don't know, some kind of legal expert. But is this really opening up a good discussion about the legal system, or just kind of giving folks talking points for what they believe already?

IFTIKHAR: Well, I think it's a bit of a sideshow. You know, for me, what the most important legal development recently in the case has been was the testimony of a former college professor of George Zimmerman who testified in court that Zimmerman got an A in his criminal justice class, which actually taught self-defense and Florida's stand-your-ground law. And the reason that this is important is because Zimmerman, last year, said that he did not know about Florida's stand-your-ground law, which, again, imputes his credibility a little bit.

And, as most people know, in criminal cases, a defendant really has to prove nothing. But if they bring up self-defense, they do have to prove that. And this will go, in turn, this will attack a little bit of his credibility in terms of his self-defense argument.

IZRAEL: Super Mario, is it helpful to have this trial televised? What do you think about that?

LOYOLA: Well, it's definitely helpful to have it focus on the evidence, and if televising it helps that, then it's helpful, I guess. I mean, it's very good that the trial seems to be focusing more and more on questions of evidence and law like what Arsalan just pointed out, like, for example, the question of, is there any DNA on the weapon that was used, because if there isn't, then Zimmerman's story of Trayvon Martin trying to get the gun away from him is cast into doubt.

And the more that we are talking about evidence as opposed to the respective attorneys trying to play on really terrible racial stereotypes and stuff like that, then the more this is going to be just, you know, a case about law and justice, rather than something that could animate a lot of racial animus in the country. And, you know, we still have to hope that won't happen. We have to see what the verdict's going to be and what hell could break loose then.

IZRAEL: Yeah, I think we're too far gone, bro. I mean, that's just me. I think that, when I look at this, I see this as a case of - it's almost he said, he said, except that one of the "hes" is unfortunately dead. And so there's this standard of proof that only a witness, an eyewitness, or one of these gentlemen could make the case. And the one gentleman is making his case, but the other gentleman is not alive to do so.

And it feels so much like the O.J. Simpson trial as kind of a barometer of people's racial tolerance and where they are in their evolution. And I'm sad. I'm sad to say that when I watch this and I hear, like, the blow-by-blow, this sounds like Friday night fights on the news commentary. I mean, people comment on it like they're watching Hagler v. Hearns, and that saddens me, 'cause a young man lost his life, and no matter how this resolves, we can't get him back.

But I'm sad for this country. I'm sad we're at this place. And I, I don't know, I mean, if this doesn't go the right way, I feel like, you know, people's heads might burst into flames. I mean, it's very serious out there, you know, to realize that a young black man's life may not be, isn't worth the same as a young white-Hispanic man's fear of him at any given moment in time, very sad.

DADE: Jimi, I know we got to move on, but I will say real briefly, you know, the state bears some responsibility here. In these high-profile cases, often the prosecution overcharges. There's a case to be made that misdemeanor, that - excuse me - manslaughter was the more appropriate charge.

HEADLEE: Could have gone either way, but we, as you alluded to, we probably need to move on. And Jimi, I understand you actually, you know, to lighten up a little, you have a riddle for us this week, right?

IZRAEL: Is that the truth? I have a riddle?

HEADLEE: I was told you had a riddle.

IZRAEL: Well, OK, well, I got it. So what do Tesla automobiles and the Death Star have in common with the Westboro Church - Baptist Church?


LOYOLA: Uh-oh.

HEADLEE: Celeste, well, what...

HEADLEE: Well, I happen to know this, but I - that's cheating, 'cause, you know...

DADE: ...All right, well...

IZRAEL: As it turns out, you know, they're both subjects of White House petitions. Come on, that was easy.

HEADLEE: Ohh, that was a weak one, Jimi, come on.

DADE: Ohh, wah-wah-wah.

IZRAEL: OK, all right, but it's true, it's true. The White House responded earlier this week to a petition over 30,000 - I'm sorry - 300,000 people signed to have the church, which does anti-gay protests at military funerals, classified as a hate group. The White House called the group's actions reprehensible, but said they don't label hate groups. A-Train, are these petitions, are they kind of like democracy 2.0 in action, or just kind of a waste of time?

IFTIKHAR: I think a little bit of both. And the reason that I say that is because, you know, if you look at the phenomenon of change.org, right. Change.org is an online petition service that has, you know, generated millions and millions of petitions that actually have led to positive change.

I think the White House really was just trying to reach out to the average American by allowing for petitions to be filled on their website. You know, I think that it's something that they're taking out of the playbook of change.org, but, sadly, without any sort of, you know, real mechanism behind it.

IZRAEL: Corey Dade. Does anyone take these things seriously, bro?

DADE: Oh, yeah, they do.

IZRAEL: Really?

DADE: These, you know, this is the beauty of the Internet. It has sort of leveled the playing field. It's given sort of voice to the voiceless. It's given the average person - whether it's the Internet, Twitter, you name it - the average person with an opinion the ability to publicize their point of view. And change.org, in particular, as Arsalan mentioned, and some other groups online have been very effective in building these online petitions to the point of actually putting negative pressure on organizations. I mean, you know, Bank of America comes to mind.

A couple of years ago, they were planning to raise their banking fees, and an online petition came, and it drove such negative attention toward Bank of America that the bank ended up reversing its decision and abandoning that idea.

HEADLEE: We're going to move to our last topic here, because, sadly, the barbershop is coming to an end soon. And I wanted to make sure we talked about "The Lone Ranger" movie that I saw.


HEADLEE: And my four-word review is don't go see it.


HEADLEE: The movie has gotten a lot of bad press for Johnny Depp's depiction of Native Americans as Tonto, who's the crazy sidekick in, kind of, KISS style face paint. Let's take a listen.


JOHNNY DEPP: (as Tonto) From the great beyond, a vision told me a great warrior and spirit walker would help me on my quest, a man who has been to the other side and returned. I would have preferred someone else, but who am I to question the great father?

HEADLEE: All right, well, let's get some of your responses. Corey, have you seen it?

DADE: I've not seen it yet.

HEADLEE: What do you think about the whole controversy?

DADE: You know, first of all, anytime a black actor or another minority actor is not relegated to being the loyal sidekick, I'm relieved. Let me just put that out there, all right. But, you know, that's maybe the one bright side. You know, at the end of the day, you know, Hollywood, you know, sadly, will choose a bankable star over a racially or ethnically appropriate actor more often than not.

You know, they have a long history of doing it, and every time it happens, they do it over again. I will say, though, you know, as for Johnny Depp, he actually does have Native American lineage. I actually started my career covering the small suburb in Miami where he grew up, and I met his parents.

IZRAEL: Pop that collar, bro.

DADE: I met his parents. And it's well-known that he does have Native American heritage, not that that is at all an excuse, but, I mean, it is what it is.

IZRAEL: I mean, so do I.

HEADLEE: That's an excuse. Mario, what do you think?

LOYOLA: Well, I think that dramatic narrative was first based on stereotypes and archetypes in approximately the ninth century B.C. and has been that way ever since. And I think that, you know, Johnny Depp, a character like, an actor like Johnny Depp, you bring him on board, it's going to be caricature, it's going to be stereotype...

HEADLEE: ...Whoa, whoa, whoa, OK...

LOYOLA: ...That's what he does for a living...

HEADLEE: Mario, I got to interrupt you here, 'cause you're going deep on to the ninth century here. I saw the movie. I'm also part Native American, on my mother's side. And I just, without any spoilers, let me just say that Tonto was a stereotype that we should have left. It had finally begun to...

DADE: ...From the get go.

HEADLEE: ...To go - pass out of our cultural consciousness, and that's where it should have stayed. It was a stereotype that we did not need to revive, and this movie does nothing to ameliorate the bad stereotype that Tonto raised in the beginning. But Jimi, let me get your response.

IZRAEL: Well, I mean, that's why they call it acting. I mean, you know, Al Pacino played Carlito Brigante, also Tony Montano. Anthony Hopkins played a Jew who was - a black man who was trying to pretend to be a Jew.

So I don't really have any, I don't have any problem with Johnny Depp, probably our finest, one of our finest American actors, probably this generation's Brando, playing a Native American. I don't personally have any - again, that's why they call it acting, to kind of paraphrase super Mario's point. But all that said, you know, I understand it's an awful script, full of just...

HEADLEE: It is a terrible movie and its stereotype is terrible....

IZRAEL: It's just, it's just...


IZRAEL: Yeah, it's just CGI porn. And I'm sad for that, but beyond that, I mean...

HEADLEE: Yeah, I have no problem with the acting...

IZRAEL: Yeah, Johnny Depp gets to have to get a check like everybody else...

HEADLEE: ...But the actual character itself needs to go.

IZRAEL: So why not? A-Train?

IFTIKHAR: Yeah, so...

HEADLEE: So, right, well, we have to move on now. That was writer...



HEADLEE: ...And culture critical - critic Jimi Izrael. Sorry to cut you short. Arsalan Iftikhar has many thoughts.


IFTIKHAR: It's the key.

HEADLEE: He's senior editor of The Islamic Monthly and founder of TheMuslimGuy.com. They both joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Mario Loyola of the National Review joined us from member station KUT. And here in D.C., we had Corey Dade, contributing editor for The Root. Thank you, guys.


DADE: Thank you.

LOYOLA: Chop, chop.

IZRAEL: Yep, yep.

HEADLEE: Remember, if you can't get enough barbershop on the radio, look for the barbershop podcast. It's in the iTunes Store, or you can just grab it at NPR.org. That is our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Tune in for more talk on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.