…and why it won’t
NB: This article contains minor spoilers for JoJo Rabbit, BlackkKlansman and Joker.
Accepting the BAFTA for Best-Adapted Screenplay this week, Taika Waititi said:
“Comedy is a way more powerful tool than just straight drama, because with drama, people tend to switch off or feel a sense of guilt or leave feeling depressed … Often it doesn’t sit with them as much as a comedy does.”
This, far more eloquently, echoes the conclusion that I came to myself about the picture. Films like Schindler’s List should arguably be mandatory viewing, so vital is the message that history has left us, but using the stark contrast of horror next to comedy, that message can arguably resonate more loudly, and can perhaps be more willingly heard.
Quite rightly, Schindler’s List won the Best Picture Oscar, among its seven Oscars and this is in no way an argument that JoJo Rabbit is a better film, far from it. But the world felt safer in 1993. Now is not the time to be shying away from potentially controversial awards.
The Best Picture award should, of course, go to what is objectively the best film and there are some excellent contenders. But equally, Hollywood is and always has been a political place.
There are many examples going back a long way. The anti-war message of All Quiet on the Western Front, which would so enrage the Nazis, the satire of The Great Dictator, the transcendent romance of Casablanca, which comes with a clear call to arms.
If, as seems to be the case, we are in the midst of a ‘culture war’, then the starting point is surely the dominant culture at the inception of said war. That dominant culture is unquestionably the Western worldview, filtered most obviously through American media. Maybe the “liberal bias” of Hollywood is a myth, particularly given the number of patriotic, flag-waving movies that are produced. But the perception of the right certainly seems to be that it is biased, hence their continued efforts to widen the Overton Window. Sometimes, you must know when you’re in a fight. Like it or not, sometimes you must throw a punch and be willing to take a few back.
So sure, maybe the most important and relevant nominee for Best Film isn’t necessarily the best film. Maybe the role of awards ceremonies isn’t to publicise and popularise important, accessible, meaningful films. Maybe the correct response from unwilling participants in cultural warfare is dignified silence. Maybe.
Maybe it’s fine that last year a film like Green Book was somehow seen as a more worthy Oscar winner than BlacKkKlansman, which only managed Best Adapted Screenplay. Like JoJo Rabbit, BlacKkKlansman smartly uses contrast to impart resonance and searing emotional impact. The devastating final moments of the film remind you that the witty, sometimes playful portrayal of the incredible story that you’ve just seen is horribly relevant now.
The film this year with the most nominations is Joker. A fine film, with a fine leading actor. But its directors’ comments about woke culture are both unsettling in this context and also directly contradicted by the humour in JoJo Rabbit… Phillips said, “Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture…There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore — I’ll tell you why, because all the f***ing funny guys are like, f*** this s**t, because I don’t want to offend you.” Uh-huh. Go tell that to Taiki Waititi who stars in his own movie as a comedy Hitler.
Joker is fine. Whether as a comic book movie it deserves more Oscar nominations than The Dark Knight is another question. Whether it is original is clearly debatable given the obvious homage to the movies of Scorsese. A central scene of the film is so closely related to the Bernhard Goetz shootings that this is another film inseparable from the dominant cultural conversation.
It’s not for me to say which is the better film. But whatever wins on Sunday, I doubt it will be JoJo, for many reasons.
For one thing, the left generally seems slower to act than the right, even in something as apparently superficial as entertainment. Perhaps it’s because progressives seek understanding rather than looking for simple answers.
JoJo has little place in that argument. Taika Waititi is a Polynesian Jewish man, and his film has an all-white cast, quite naturally, given its setting.
But the film is brave, it’s important and it should be celebrated, especially in 2020. Not just for poking fun at Hitler either. It is indeed, as its tagline says, a satire that goes to war on hate.
Some have criticised the film as being lightweight and ineffective. On the contrary, this is a film that gives us a proud Nazi as a protagonist. It challenges us to understand his point of view. Then it confronts that point of view with reality and watches it fall apart. American History X did the same thing well back in 1998, and it remains a film I hold in high regard. While that film used some humour to help the protagonist find his turning point, JoJo goes full throttle comedy from the outset but feels at least as convincing, if not more so. In Taika Waititi’s Ted talk, he mentions turning swastikas into windows. It’s a great metaphor for his film.
So, yes, I feel that JoJo Rabbit strongly deserves the Best Picture Oscar for which it is nominated, but it’s not going to happen. I dearly hope that I’m wrong and that I must revisit this post on Monday.
If nothing else, I hope this encourages you to watch the film, maybe to share it with others. Maybe even to help open the right kind of windows.