Well, it's a matter of cultural sensitivity. This type
of thing is controversial, and here's why. (I personally don't believe this particular
example to be offensive, and I'll get to that in a minute. But it does bring attention to the wider issue, and I also think that was intentional on Johnny's part.
The fact is, there is a very long history of racism in this country. One of the ways that has manifested over the years, is unrealistic portrayals in the media. Minorities are often ignored in fiction, and when they do show up they are often overly simplified characters, or stereotypes.
For decades, most races in movies were played by white actors. They were painted dark to look arab, or red for indians, or with slanted eyes for chinese. One result of this (or probably the cause) was that only white actors were ever hired, if you weren't white, you didn't get to be an actor. (Minorities were excluded from most other high paying or "important" jobs too.) But another result was that these actors played their characters how they thought
those people would act or think or experience life, without really knowing at all. This only served to increase stereotypes, and add to the misunderstandings between people in society.
The other thing is that minorities were often intentionally played in insulting ways, by racist filmmakers, writers, and actors. They might be played as idiots, or villains, but rarely as the hero or central character. In some ways that persists today, as it became ingrained in our society. We now have actors of many ethnic backgrounds (though not as many as we probably could), but they are often stuck playing stereotypical roles, like the "angry black man".
The most extreme form of insulting portrayals in the past, was "blackface". This was where white people would paint their faces with black paint. It was not meant to look real, it was meant to be an exaggeration. This was for the sole purpose of mocking black people, playing them as comically stupid and foolish, for comedic effect.
Blackface is now seriously taboo, and anything resembling it is considered seriously offensive. Unless the point of the story is to point out that such things are offensive.
This, I believe, is what Johnny Depp has in mind here.
Native Americans have been persecuted in this country ever since white people arrived here. Those that weren't slaughtered were removed from their ancestral lands, and forced to live on whatever parcels of land that no-one else wanted. Then they were robbed of their culture. Their children were taken away and taught to act and think like white people, in an attempt to remove what made them who they were.
Native Americans were here first, this was their
home, but when Europeans wanted to settle the land, first they had to get rid of the people who were already living there. When any Native Americans fought to defend what was rightfully theirs, they were only treated as villains to be feared, or thought to kill for the sake of killing. In almost every story of "Cowboys and Indians", the Indians were savages and bad guys, to be feared and killed.
While the occasional character was allowed to be not evil, it was still not very flattering. For example, in the original Lone Ranger, Tonto was the sidekick, not the hero. He was probably twice as capable as the Lone Ranger himself, but Tonto got none of the credit, he was only there to follow the hero around and say flattering things.
This is where Johnny Depp comes in.
Here is an article where he explains his look in the film, and also his take on the character:
Johnny Depp reveals origins of Tonto makeup from 'The Lone Ranger' -- EXCLUSIVE
For his part, Depp has said his motivation to play the character came from disliking how Tonto was relegated to subservience in the old Clayton Moore/Jay Silverheels TV series. While the look may not be historically authentic, Depp wants Tonto’s character to be honorable and self-reliant.
“The whole reason I wanted to play Tonto is to try to [mess] around with the stereotype of the American Indian that has been laid out through history, or the history of cinema at the very least — especially Tonto as the sidekick, The Lone Ranger’s assistant,” Depp told EW. “As you’ll see, it’s most definitely not that.”
Personally, I knew
this would be his approach to the role, as soon as I thought about the controversy. Because I know his sense of humor, I know he does not use stereotypes to mock people, but instead mocks the stereotype itself
, and the fact that it exists. He takes what the audience, and society expect, and turns it on it's head, instead delivering something unexpected
for comedic effect. He provides a parody of the stereotypes that we are used to seeing. This is why I am very looking forward to this movie.
So while it is true that there are not enough fully authentic Native people in film roles, this movie is simply addressing different aspects of the issue, not ignoring it. And I think it's going to be a lot of fun in the process.