I don’t have sympathy for angry, mentally disturbed white men that turn their rage into homicidal fantasies come to life. I never empathized with Remy in Higher Learning even though I understand what loneliness during freshman year of college feels like. Truth be told, Taxi Driver? Overrated. And I’ve never been fascinated with understanding the motives of serial killers like Dahmer and Bundy. So when reviews of Joker started trickling from film festivals, I took notice how the most praise came from white publicans, especially men, and the criticism was coming from everyone but. Word around the campfire was that the Best Actor Oscar is all but Joaquin Phoenix’s to lose, which led to talk about what does it mean that a performance of a character like the Joker is a critical darling even before public had a chance to watch the film.
Going into the movie, my expectations were low, mostly because of my disdain for what the Joker character would ultimately turn out to be. In fact, if it wasn’t for the Fandango alert on my phone, I would’ve forgotten to see the movie opening night. However, the good thing about having low expectations is that the bar should be easier to hurdle, right?
When the trailer premiered for Joker, I said that Zazie Beetz not giving Joker any lovin’ would be the reason why he turned into the Clown Prince. While I was being a bit tongue-in-cheek, I was serious about thinking Joker’s origin would be born of something that he wouldn’t have to take responsibility for. And, for the most part, my feeling was right.
Arthur Fleck is a man that’s had a hard life. As a child, he was physically abused and as an adult, society treats him with no regard. The world of Gotham borders destitution: the city is poor, rat infested and is in a heighten state of agitation. Fleck routinely sees a social worker and is prescribed medication to manage a neurological condition that cripples his ability to be socially and mentally, for a lack of a better word, normal. Mostly, he teeters on the edge of being a functioning adult. Because Gotham is broke, spending on social programs are the first to get cut, much like every American city. Once Fleck is unable to continue seeing his social worker and loses his ability to be prescribed medication, any semblance of maintaining a healthy life is completely obliterated.
In the first act of the movie, we see a man that’s continually balancing depression, instability and anger. Even if you removed the title Joker from the film and watched without any knowledge of who the Joker is, you are apprehensively and, somehow, eagerly awaiting the moment that tips Fleck off the scales. It’s a testament to Phoenix’s powerfully unnerving performance, to be quite honest. His portrayal of Fleck comes across tense but authentic, and it’s scary. Walk any street or ride public transportation in any American city and you’ll see people that society has discarded. You may come across the poor, the homeless or the mental disabled and you may pretend they aren’t there or just, flat out, ignore their being. Arthur Fleck, particularly in the first act of the film, felt like all those people who wanted to be seen as human but never were.
The Arthur Fleck Story is moving and I can see why Joaquin is getting the critical praise. (I agree with critics; Phoenix winning Best Actor is shoe-in.) There are moments that you feel sympathy for the man that just wanted to make people laugh but he could never move beyond the constrains of society nor get out of his own way. His metamorphosis into the Joker, however, is where things fall apart and my mesmerization with Phoenix began to fade and the familiar feeling of seeing the villain being championed began to wash over me.
I would love to know, in the history of the American judicial system, the number of judges that have hugged defendants after they’d been convicted of murder. In these 33 years on the third rock from the sun, I’ve never seen anything as perplexing and maddening as when Judge Tammy Kemp got off her bench to hug freshly convicted murderer Amber Guyger. In September 2018, then-Dallas police officer Guyger wrongly entered the apartment of Botham Jean and shot him to death because she thought, allegedly, that he was an intruder of her apartment. During the trial, text messages of Guyger to other officers surfaced to reveal that she
was is clearly a racist woman. But that didn’t seem to matter to, seemingly, anyone involved with the trial.
White Woman Tears™ are mighty powerful in America. When wielded properly, they hold more value and importance than black lives. Guyger’s racist murdering ass turned on the waterworks and managed to turn herself into the victim, saying she wished she was the one that died instead of Botham. As a result of this bloated, preposterous performance, Jean’s brother kicked off the hug-a-thon in the middle of proceedings and the Judge Kemp kept the party going. The sympathy generated by White Woman Tears™ was, also, potent enough to earn Guyger a lighten jail sentence: she received a 10 year prison sentence but is eligible for parole in five. Once those messily five years are over, Amber Guyger will get her life back and Botham Jean will not.
The lack of accountability is astounding. When Guyger’s racist text messages were brought to the court, fellow officer Thomas MacPherson, a white man, described them as “out of character.” When asked as to how she could park on a completely wrong floor of her garage, confuse her apartment with someone else’s, shoot a believed intruder and not try to disarm them or call for back up, Guyger said she was distracted by sext messages from a police officer that she was sleeping with. A white male juror, who didn’t know Botham from a hole in the wall, when asked about the light sentencing, said, “I don’t think Bo would want to take harsh vengeance; I think he would want to forgive her.”
Five years is all a white police officer may have to pay for breaking, entering and killing a black person while they eat ice cream in their own home. That’s the power of whiteness in America: people, not just white people, will protect it, coddle it and let it thrive at all cost. And that’s the feeling, the sense, the reminder that I got when watching Joker.
Director Todd Phillips tries to cheat. Though we see Joker’s metaphorical and literal descent into madness and we witness his heinous and hideous killings, there are things Phillips wants to get away with to drum and maintain faux sympathy for Fleck.
There’s a reason why we don’t see Joker murder Sophie (played by Beetz), possibly her young daughter and his psychiatrist at the end of the movie but we see all of his other killings. There’s a weightiness that Phillips sidesteps by not showing these women’s death on screen as opposed to the other gruesome scenes of murder because Phillip’s does not want the audience to digest what it means for Joker, a character that was built as a sympathetic figure, to kill innocent people. Joker killings have a logical reason (the three yuppies harassed the woman and attached Fleck first, Randall lied and was a reason why he got fired from his job, his mother let the physical abuse he suffered as a child to continue and Murray humiliated him on national TV) except for these three women: none are justifiable and the audience is never given the chance reconcile with that fact.
Also, Phillips’ method of using protest to further the story is ham-handed and, frankly, ignorant. Throughout the movie, to signal the swell of bubbling discontent within Gotham, scores of protestors fight back police officers and protest against Thomas Wayne in a “eat-the-rich” kind of way, culminating in massive riots at the end of the film. During shots of the protest, they are “RESIST” signs scattered in different crowds. Co-opting today’s Resist movement for this movie is tone-deaf and dismissive to what the movement actually represents.
In the movie, billionaire Thomas Wayne runs for Mayor of Gotham and promises to make the city a better place. The people of Gotham are jobless, dirty and unsafe, and there’s a billionaire who is, actually, generous and thoughtful wanting to make things better; what the fuck is there to resist? If Phillips wants to make the argument that people will use any excuse to do evil things or that Wayne was a man worth resisting, those things could have been accomplished without feeling subversive to real reasons as to why people protest.
Joker doesn’t do anything in regard to de-stigmatizing mental illness nor has anything deep or important to say about isolation, depression or nihilism. By the end of the movie, Fleck goes out of his way to declare that he doesn’t have any political leanings but is aggressively tired of being looked over (which sounds oddly similar to Trump’s base) and we see him triumphant as he’s flanked by legions of supporters in the midst of fire and chaos. Whether it’s fiction with Joker or reality with Amber Guyger, only in a world where white privilege is king that death and destruction have no real price, just victims. Both took what they wanted and used their currency to get over. Guyger knew the power she had and used it to the nth degree, but I’m not sure Todd Phillips knew. And that’s scarier than a actor in clown makeup.