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
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.
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
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
Joker will depict race. Early trailer reactions were apprehensive, zeroing in on the way black people are featured prominently in Joker’s life.
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 middle 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.
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.