The Joker Is White

The controversy around the film highlights the politicization of culture — and tensions between the “class left” and the “identity left”

Cathy Young
Oct 15, 2019 · 13 min read
Credit: Warner Bros.

“The Real Threat of ‘Joker’ Is Hiding in Plain Sight,” reads the headline on one of the many recent think pieces about the new film, this one in . That threat is — wait for it — “whiteness.”

This commentary and others like it strikingly illustrate a phenomenon Phoebe Maltz Bovy noted in the 2017 book :“The trend — no, the quasi requirement—in arts criticism that involves subjecting every book, movie, and television show to a privilege critique.” Bovy, herself a left-wing feminist, finds it depressing that the progressive media no longer seem to have “any space… for ways of taking in culture that aren’t explicitly political.”

The bizarre and (so far) baseless panic over began over a month before the film’s opening. Some advance reviews after its showing at the Venice Film Festival (where it won the Golden Lion award) pushed the notion that it was “incel-friendly.” Incels, in case you’re not keeping up, are — at least as the word is commonly used — a subgroup of “involuntarily celibate” men who hate all womankind for denying them sex.

“A toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels,” wrote ’s David Ehrlich, who praised many aspects of the film. critic Stephanie Zacharek, who panned it, wrote that protagonist Arthur Fleck could be “the patron saint of incels.” That reading is, to put it kindly, a stretch. True, there’s a subplot in which the socially inept, mentally ill Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) has what turns out to be an imaginary relationship with a female neighbor, Sophie (Zazie Beetz). And it’s doubtful that he has ever had an actual relationship with a woman. But there is nothing to suggest that he’s a misogynist as opposed to a general misanthrope.

Later, as the film opened in the United States, attention shifted to race. In a much-derided review in the ’s online edition, Richard Brody slammed as a thinly veiled racist, right-wing screed.

Brody argues that the film’s opening scene is a covert attack on the Central Park Five, the young black men wrongly convicted in the 1989 rape of a white jogger and later exonerated. Here’s what the movie depicts: Fleck, who does gigs for a rent-a-clown agency, is toting a sign for a store’s going-out-of-business sale. A group of black and Hispanic boys walks by and one of them snatches the sign. Fleck pursues them into a garbage-strewn alleyway, only to be knocked down, viciously kicked, and left bruised and dazed on the ground. Brody believes this is an allusion to the Central Park rape as originally seen by the public: a group of “teenagers of color” brutalizing a lone white person.

Where to begin? First, the attack on Fleck has no similarities to the gang rape the Central Park Five were accused of. Second, the events around the Central Park rape did include a large group of “teenagers of color” “wreaking havoc” in the park— among other things, brutally beating several white male joggers and bicyclists. (For the record, I don’t think alludes to any of that.) Is Brody saying that urban violence in the 1980s — disproportionately committed by young African-American and Hispanic males — was a fiction made up by racist demagogues?

It gets better. Brody moves on to the pivotal moment when Fleck, harassed and brutalized by three drunk white yuppies on the subway late at night, snaps and kills them with a gun given to him by a co-worker. Brody sees this as a nod to Bernhard Goetz, the New Yorker who shot and wounded four black teenagers — alleged would-be muggers — on the subway in December 1984. (Many believed the shooting was racially motivated, though a large portion of crime-weary black New Yorkers viewed it as justified.)

This time the link is probably real: The “CLOWN VIGILANTE!” headlines in Gotham City tabloids echo Goetz’s “subway vigilante” moniker. But Brody’s take is… well, unreal: by making Fleck’s assailants/victims white, the film “whitewashes Goetz’s attack, eliminating any racial motive and turning it into an act of self-defense gone out of control.” (Of course, what actually does — at most — is use the Goetz incident as a minor cultural reference in depicting a subway shooting that differs in almost every detail.)

Add to this Arthur’s fraught relationship with Sophie (who is black) and an encounter with a black woman on the subway who rebukes him when he tries to befriend her son, and Brody’s verdict is in: is a movie that insidiously pretends to be colorblind even though it’s about a white guy who “becomes violent after being assaulted by a group of people of color” and who resents his perceived mistreatment by black women.

Of course, that’s about as accurate a summary as “is about a wartime romance between a princess and a heroic aviator.” It’s technically defensible, but also wildly misleading and could only be written by someone who is trying to do something other than review and recap the actual movie as it is. For one, there is no suggestion that the first assault pushes Arthur to violence. Arthur himself seems to minimize it — “They’re just kids” — when co-worker Randy expresses disgust at the attack. And after that, of Arthur’s tormentors are white. The three drunk yuppies. Randy, who gives him a gun for protection, then sets him up to get fired. Thomas Wayne, the super-rich mayoral candidate who may be Arthur’s father and who brutally rejects him. Arthur’s mother Penny, who may have lied to him about his background and allowed him to be severely abused as a child. And, of course, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), the late-night talk show host whom Arthur idolizes and who humiliates Arthur on television by playing a clip of his disastrous stand-up act.

The essay by Lawrence Ware about ’s“whiteness” takes a different tack than Brody’s piece, arguing that the film accidentally reveals the danger of “white supremacy” left unchecked:

This is an extraordinary string of assertions. To start with, while blacks do experience homelessness more than whites, it’s far from a given that a black man with Fleck’s condition would be homeless. As for a black Arthur Fleck becoming a hero: in 1981, it’s extremely doubtful that white Arthur Fleck would have become a hero or inspired a massive anti-rich revolt either. America had just elected Ronald Reagan. New York City had a highly popular, relatively conservative Democrat, Edward Koch, as Mayor. It just wasn’t a big moment for radical-left populism.

Also: in 1981, a white man acting as oddly as Fleck would not have been allowed on the air either! If “mugger” was coded as black, “psycho with a gun” (Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley) was definitely coded as white. Arthur Fleck is allowed in Murray Franklin’s studio — and allowed to continue on the air after he confesses to the subway shooting! — for one simple reason: . I had to actively suspend my disbelief as I watched. It happens for the same reason that Thomas Wayne goes to the movies with his wife and son, with no bodyguard, in the midst of a raucous anti-rich protest: the plot needs it so that Mr. and Mrs. Wayne can get shot by a clown-masked rioter, giving young Bruce his defining moment.

As for a “force field” that protects mentally ill white males in interactions with police, it certainly wasn’t there for Keith Vidal, the North Carolina teen shot dead in 2014 after his mother called the police for help while he was having a psychotic episode, or for Tony Timpa, the schizophrenic Dallas man who died partly due to being brutally restrained by cops who ignored and mocked his distress. Such cases are all too common, and while race can be a factor, the victims are often white.

Ware also sees a racial subtext in Fleck’s tense interactions with four black female characters: Sophie, the subway mom, a social worker/counselor early on, and a psychiatrist at “Arkham State Hospital” at the end. (Bizarrely, Ware states as self-evident fact that they “occupy a lower rung in society” than Fleck, presumably because he is white and male.) But Ware leaves out a notable detail: When the counselor informs Arthur their sessions are being terminated due to health care cuts, she says, “They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur. They don’t give a shit about people like me.” This comment explicitly suggests a common bond between the two, despite earlier hostile moments when Arthur accuses her of not listening. You could even see it in political terms, as editor Micah Uetricht does: class solidarity between the oppressed “across race and gender boundaries.”

Or you could focus entirely on race and gender, like culture writer Beandrea July in a essay, and complain that this line puts a “misogynistic future murderer” on the same level as an “underpaid government worker.” Never mind that at that point, Fleck is a bullied, poor, mentally ill man. And I’m still not sure where the supposed misogyny comes in.

Both July and Ware also assail the film for treating the violent deaths of black women disrespectfully. As Ware puts it, Fleck’s “black female victims are so invisible that the film does not bother to show their deaths.” One ostensible black female victim is the Arkham psychiatrist. The final scene in which Fleck prances down the hallway leaving bloody footprints implies he has killed her — or maybe it’s all his fantasy. But Ware and July insist on adding Sophie to the body count as well, arguing that Arthur probably killed her after she found him in her apartment and asked him to leave. There is no hint at this in the film, and Beetz (the actor who plays her) doesn’t seem to think that it happened. (Update: Director Todd Philipps has also said that Sophie is alive and that subsequent scenes with her were deleted because they decided to stick to Arthur’s POV only; the screenplay confirms this.)

Reading an event into a film and then attacking the film for not showing it — that’s next-level culture criticism for you. Oh, and July also acknowledges there’d have been blistering criticism “if the film were to show Joker viciously murdering two black women on camera.” Damned if you do, etc.

The Brody, Ware, and July pieces are just three of many such takes about . Thus, to CNN opinion contributor Jeff Yang, the film is “an insidious validation of the white-male resentment that helped bring President Donald Trump to power.” (Would Brody have seen the Central Park Five reference few others saw in the film if Donald Trump’s involvement in the episode didn’t make it a current-day political matter? Back then, the now-president took out full-page newspaper ads calling for the death penalty for the accused, and he refuses to apologize for it even post-exoneration.)

All this is especially ludicrous and dishonest because, if does have a political slant, it’s much more accurately described as left-wing: This is a film that gives fairly sympathetic treatment to a violent rebellion against the rich and explicitly blames the protagonist’s plight on cutbacks in social services. Wayne, the millionaire running for political office, echoes Trump’s “I alone can fix it” with his claim to be Gotham’s “only hope.”

Even on “identity” issues, strikes a number of progressive notes. Randy, Arthur’s back-stabbing co-worker (who eventually gets a very gory front-stabbing at Arthur’s scissor-wielding hands), is an unabashed bigot. “They’re animals, savages,” he says of Gotham’s criminal element in a tone that hints heavily at the racial subtext of . He also makes nasty size jokes to a fellow clown who is a dwarf. And those drunk yuppies on the subway aren’t just affluent white males but sexist jerks who harass a female passenger in the near-empty car before they start bullying Arthur.

Indeed, several left-wing authors have praised as an indictment of capitalism (or of “austerity”) and a declaration of “class warfare.” Heck, Michael Moore has hailed it as a “masterpiece,” invoking Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese, and an essential film raising “profound” and “necessary” issues. This rather sharp disagreement highlights the increasingly visible divergence between class-struggle leftism and “woke” identitarian leftism.

I’m not a leftist of any kind — if you must know, my politics at this point are probably best described as (gasp!) “neoliberal” — but if that’s the choice, I’ll take old-fashioned class struggle anytime. I’m certainly not a fan of violent riots. I’m also not in favor of demonizing the rich. But it sure beats the hell out of shrieking that the mere suggestion of empathy for a mentally ill person at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder is dangerous when that person has white skin and a penis.

It should be said that there has also been nonpolitical criticism of . Anthony Lane, in a review that made it into ’s print edition, thought it was a “miserabilist manifesto” lacking a coherent plot or a real interest in its protagonist’s internal life. critic Ann Hornaday concluded that it’s “a fine movie, not a great movie,” too full of itself and too enamored of grimness-as-quality. (Still, both gave top marks to Phoenix’s performance.) Many have criticized it as predictable and derivative.

I can go along with “fine but not great.” Up to a point, I agree that tries too hard to be a Serious Film while never quite escaping the confines of the superhero genre, an uncomfortable fit with gritty social realism. But I also believe it deserves high praise as a unique origin story, and one that opens up some interesting possibilities (e.g. a Joker who believes he’s Batman’s half-brother — and may actually be right!). Its ambiguities, including the one about Fleck’s parentage, work very well. It is brilliantly atmospheric, blending “grit” with dark humor and surreal grotesque. (The scene in which Fleck, in clown makeup, runs from the two detectives through a subway train crowded with clown-masked protesters reminded me of Hitchcock, especially the carousel chase scene in .)

The reality/fantasy blur is obviously not a new thing in film, but it felt genuinely fresh here (even though I had been spoiled about the Sophie reveal, and even though an astute viewer should have been suspicious about her scenes with Arthur from the start, especially when she is charmed by her weirdo neighbor’s stalking).

Phoenix gives an outstanding performance, as do Beetz and Frances Conroy as Arthur’s mother Penny, and De Niro is brilliant as the smarmy Franklin. Arthur’s unraveling is genuinely affecting. However, I agree that toward the end, when Arthur Fleck goes full Joker, the film seems to lose sight of his inner life. We have no idea what’s going through his mind after he shoots Franklin. (Does he find revenge satisfying? Is he reveling in finally being , by millions on live television as he commits his horrific act?) He is thrilled by the clown-mask riot which he sees from a police car; has he embraced anarchic destruction for its own sake, Heath Ledger’s Joker? It’s almost as if at this point he’s less a person than a supervillain archetype, and I think that weakens the film. (If the idea is that Arthur Fleck has lost himself in the Joker persona, I don’t think this transformation is set up enough.) Finally, I found some of the plot contrivances— especially the Waynes’ absurd trip to the movies — annoying.

Still, is a powerful film; and, right or left politics aside, its message of empathy — of the importance of the truly marginalized — is well-crafted and compelling.

It’s entirely legitimate not to like . And yet even some of the nonpolitical bad reviews feel like part of a campaign by what culture writer Art Tavana has dubbed “Woke Media, Inc.” Perhaps it’s just groupthink in response to the quasi-sympathetic depiction of a Problematic White Male. Perhaps it was also exacerbated by the director’s comments deploring “woke culture” and its effect on comedy.

The groupthink isn’t universal. (The latest essay from , for instance, is much more thoughtful and challenges some of the critiques of the film’s alleged white and male sins.) But there’s enough of it to make an impact, and to reinforce a widespread impression that the politicization of culture is everywhere.

Perhaps the most telling point in Brody’s awful pseudo-review was the complaint that the film’s avoidance of overt racial politics appeals to “viewers who are exasperated with the idea of movies being discussed in political terms — i.e., to Republicans.” In other words, not viewing all culture through the lens of “wokeness” is reactionary.

Trust me, Brody, it’s not just Republicans who are fed up with that mindset.

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