The Role Black People Play in the World of 'Joker'
The controversial Joker has been in headlines even before its theatrical release. And although most of the criticism centered around the film is on it validating incels, it’s also worth noting how it treats its black characters and if it attempts to provide any racial commentary throughout.
Too much has already been said about Joker. Warner Bros.’ new crown jewel has been the talk of Hollywood since its premiere at the Venice International Film Festival, where it later won its top prize, the Gold Lion. The director, Todd Phillips, has pivoted from comedy to serious awards fare, with the sheen of prestige that comes with it. The narrative writes itself: Director most known for bro comedies like Old School and The Hangover Trilogy grows up, gets real and justifies his place in Hollywood. Actor Joaquin Phoenix, known for his collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, and Lynne Ramsey, adds further weight to the project, with Phoenix portraying the titular character. Joker has been touted as a serious film, touching on issues of mental illness, economic inequality and America’s favorite subject: the sad, white male loner.
With prestige comes scrutiny, as Joker stands accused of being cinematic validation for incels as well as a possible catalyst for mass violence. Phoenix recently walked out of an interview after being asked by film critic Robbie Collin if he was worried that the film might inspire the kind of person the film’s about, which Collin described as “an unstable, self-pitying loner with a mass-shooter mindset.” Warner Bros. has even issued a statement saying that the film isn’t intended as an endorsement of violence and that the filmmakers do not consider the Joker a hero. Much of the criticism of Joker has been rooted in handwringing over what the film supposedly stands for and the power it will hold in the public once it is unleashed into multiplexes worldwide. This panic has reached a critical mass as we all hold our collective breaths until the film’s opening weekend.
Much has also been made of Joker’s whiteness. There is worry that he may garner white nationalist sympathies, simply to his whiteness and alienation. There has also been speculation over the way Joker will depict race. Early trailer reactions were apprehensive, zeroing in on the way black people are featured prominently in Joker’s life.
At first glance, it seems as if black people are the source of Joker’s anger. A black social worker lets him down. A tired black mother tells him to leave her son alone. A black hospital clerk — portrayed by Brian Tyree Henry — stares at Joker apprehensively, as if recognizing what he is capable of. And then there’s Zazie Beetz playing Sophie, the object of Joker’s affection. Given these details, it is easy to imagine that Joker’s relationships with black people will be a major factor in the film. Their images alone leave much more of a lasting effect on the viewer than other major characters like Joker’s mother (Frances Conroy) and Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), or even Robert De Niro‘s character, the late-night comedy host Murray Franklin. The black faces are what we remember about the trailer, so it’s not unreasonable to expect them to be a major part of Joker’s eventual emotional downturn.
But there’s more to being a white nationalist than being sad while white, and having seen the film I can report that neither Joker nor the Joker are anti-black. At least, not in a way that’s any different than the inherent racism within Hollywood’s cinematic language. The kids who beat up Joker in the beginning of the film are brown, but so are most cinematic gangs of rowdy inner-city children. The social worker and hospital staff Joker encounters are black, which is common in film as well as the world we live in. In one scene, Joker interacts with a hospital clerk played by Henry. Henry’s character can tell that there’s something wrong with Joker simply by looking at him and proceeds with caution. His apprehensions are correct, but his interaction time with the burgeoning madman is short and he never returns to the film. It’s a role so small, it’s a wonder Henry accepted it in the first place. It’s like a bite-sized version of Laurence Fishburne‘s role in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.
Even Sophie, Joker’s black love interest, has a cinematic precedent: Martin Scorsese‘s The King of Comedy, a film about a struggling comedian who wants to make it big in part to impress the black woman he’s wooing (played by De Niro’s then-wife Diahnne Abbott). Like Abbott’s character Rita before her, Sophie is a practical woman just trying to make an honest living when an unpredictable, visibly sad white man intrudes on her life with nervous energy and lofty romantic expectations. Unfortunately, Beetz gets much less to do than Abbott in a role that’s more symbolic than anything else. On the other hand, there’s something nice about knowing that her low screentime promises a happy ending for her far away from the Joker. And as the film goes on, it becomes apparent that Joker is more in love with the idea of Sophie than anything else. In the universe of the film, she isn’t truly regarded as a human being.
Joker‘s depiction of blackness onscreen can be easily drawn back to Adrian Lyne‘s Jacob’s Ladder, much of Scorsese’s early work, and the films of Abel Ferrara and the directors who shaped our cinematic understanding of New York City from the ’70s well into the ’90s. Phillips simply can’t hide his influences. Joker wouldn’t exist without Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy, and its visual style is essentially a mimic of that work. Joker is a movie that has watched other movies and is aware of the shorthand necessary to make viewers believe that they’re watching a realistic, important film. Phillips knows that in order to set his work apart from the white New York City of Woody Allen or Noah Baumbach films, he has to include people of color as symbols of what is “real.” Joker is more diverse than many of Phillips’ previous films, with the exception of his previous swipe at legitimacy, War Dogs. In Joker, racial diversity is an aesthetic choice, proving its own grit and presumed importance. If anything, our apprehensive reaction to Joker‘s open display of black characters says much more about the way cinema has trained our eyes than the film itself. When we see black people onscreen we expect it to mean something, and Phillips knows enough about movies to suspect it would elicit a response.
As for the Joker himself, race rarely factors into any of his actions. He seems generally uninterested in the race of people around him and doesn’t seem to have any opinions on being white — supremacist or otherwise. His interactions with people of color are mainly depicted as incidental, and when his killing spree begins the majority of his victims are white. Joker’s actions are primarily driven by poverty, loneliness and an inability to feel like a functional part of the social ecosystem of the world. Joker has no agenda, even stating later in the film that he “doesn’t believe in anything.” His anger is an internal whirlwind with no clear origin or intended target. He is merely a soul lost in a hollowly crafted world.
Joker is many things. It’s overstuffed, politically confused, formulaic, and misogynistic. It’s a ripoff of the highest order, borrowing from greater filmmakers without the nuance or intelligence to make the entire enterprise worthwhile. It falls apart entirely in the second half as gripping drama evaporates and is replaced with a predictable villain origin story narrative. It’s a film with a lot of problems which will likely be dissected ad nauseam until the end of Oscar season next year. But, out of everything, its depiction of race is the least interesting thing about it.
Jourdain Searles is a writer, comedian, and podcaster who hails from Georgia and resides in Queens. She has written for Bitch Media, Thrillist, The Ringer, and MTV News. As a comic, she has performed stand-up in venues all over New York City, including Union Hall, The People Improv’s Theater, UCB East, and The Creek and the Cave. She can be found on Twitter.