Do Black Lives Matter in The Joker?

By S. (October 8, 2019)

This article is spot on BUT Joker is also racist AF too. The more I thought about the movie after watching the more my blood started to boil. It’s the subtle racism of erasure, misdirection, and employment of poorly thought out visual tropes. I fully expect the filmmaker’s defense against a racism accusation to be one of gaslighting and denial. I don’t care though. Here’s my evidence:

a) Within the first five minutes Phoenix’s character, Arthur Fleck, is the victim of a “gang” attack in which a group of teen boys steal his sign and beat up him. You probably saw it in the previews. The camerawork zooms in on the faces of these children so that we can see that they are children but we also see that they are beautiful shades of brown with afros that change color based on where the light is shining. I don’t think the filmmakers saw the beauty of these children. The narrative tone of the film is one of fear and the threat of violence. These children are not depicted as humans but as cruel animals toying with their prey. And they are all black.

b) At two different points in the movie, Fleck talks to two separate black, middle-aged, female social workers. I can’t even. The trope of the black woman social worker swallowed up by an indifferent bureaucracy who then becomes an uncaring face of that bureaucracy is so freaking dangerous and ugly. There is a grand history of black women in social work. And to see white filmmakers treat it is as a quickie signifier is gross. My maternal grandmother died of tuberculosis when my mother was 3. She contracted the disease from working with populations for whom TB was endemic. She literally gave her life for the cause. A generation of brave and kind black women, inspired by Jane Adams among others, became social workers in the 1930s to combat the extremes of inner city poverty and the lazy ass filmmaking of Joker treats it as more evidence of urban blight. Also the Joker kills one of those women, do black lives in films matter?

c) The love interest is a black, single mother and Fleck is white. I’m always for more diversity in casting but sometimes more thought needs to go into the choices. The love interest is a neighboring tenant in Fleck’s giant apartment building. The casting choice would have been interesting if the other tenants were predominately white, it would invoke the question of why Fleck singled out the sole black inhabitant. Or what if the love interest was white and the majority of tenants were black and brown. Yet race does not seem to be an issue in Gotham City in 1981.This leads us to the biggest problem I have with race in this movie.

d) the movie depicts the urban unrest and crime of the 1970s and 80s as if were the fault of income inequality, not racism. It whitewashes the history of our cities. It denies the history of urban black America and replaces it with a class analysis. There are no black people in this Gotham, there are just people with different skin tones. This movie goes out of its way not to see race and in doing so it replicates racist tropes. The movie doesn’t understand the danger of showing a group of black boys mugging people, it doesn’t understand the offensiveness of the black female bureaucrat, it doesn’t get that years of municipal neglect, economic shock, voter disenfranchisement, segregation, and demonization flavored urban environments from that era. White people and power structures that favor white people created the urban inequality of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. The Joker replaced that history with a rich-versus-poor narrative.

I love a good comic book movie and the world of Batman is ripe for storytelling. Gotham has always been depicted as a corrupt city of haves and have nots. Presumably, the inspiration for many of Batman’s foes were the colorful mobsters of the Prohibition Era. Tim Burton’s Batman captures this well. Burton’s Gotham is so visually distinct that you can imagine a separate history in which racism is a less important factor in civil unrest than income inequality. I have no problem with an income-inequality storyline, I have a problem with the displacement of a real historic event in favor of a fictional one. Joker’s fetish for realism (even though Fleck’s mental illness is largely fictional) reminds us of the very real history. You can’t have it both ways. Gotham is a fictional city with a fictional history. We don’t even know where it’s located. Is it in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware. Maybe it really is Chicago. We don’t know. But when you throw in the visual language of 1981 inner-city urbanity, Gotham becomes part of our very real United States, with its very real history of urban disinvestment.

In 2019, I expect more from my filmmakers.