Todd Phillips has talked a lot about the controversies surrounding “Joker” — whether the movie condones or condemns its anti-hero, if it could actually inspire real-life violence — but has yet to address the movie’s complex racial connotations, especially when it comes to the way black women are portrayed in relation to Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck.
In Hollywood, women still lag behind men in terms of on-screen visibility, and it’s significantly worse for women of color, as the most recent USC Annenberg diversity and inclusion study shows. Only 33.1% of roles in the 100 top movies of 2018 went to female characters; of those, just 11% went to underrepresented racial or ethnic groups, of which black women are included.
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“Joker” at least deserves some credit on this front: It bucks that trend. Most women who interact with the white male lead happen to be black, and none are stereotypes or historically stock characters (maids, mammies, sex workers, etc). In fact, based on how black women engage with Arthur, one can infer that the director sees them as collective representatives of a basic humanity that’s otherwise absent in the characters who inhabit his very small world. At the same time, they’re largely nameless and exhibit a uniformity that creates a disturbing sense that they’re being used in service of another kind of cliche.
Early on, Arthur encounters a black mother (Mandela Bellamy) and her young son (Demetrius Dotson II) on a packed city bus. The wannabe comedian entertains the appreciative kid, until his mother scolds Arthur for engaging her son without her permission. It’s a logical reaction: For many black people, the country’s systemic framework keeps poor and working-class black communities in perpetual economic deprivation, and it eventually elicits anger and mistrust against the Other — namely, white people, and especially white men. So when a white man engages her son, she goes into defense mode.
Arthur, who starts laughing uncontrollably, hands the disgruntled mother a card with text on it that explains his condition — a disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, inaccurately reflecting his emotional state. She reads it and leaves him alone in his hysteria. Other characters in the film berate, ridicule, or even assault him when faced with his affliction, but it could be that the mother simply sees no reason to further escalate the situation. She has no reason to be concerned with Arthur’s condition; she’s assessed that he poses no threat to her or her son, and that’s that.
Then there’s the nameless social worker (Sharon Washington, “Social Worker”), whom Arthur visits repeatedly. In an early scene, she questions whether it helps to discuss his thoughts. It’s clear from the expression on Arthur’s face that she is not that person. In their final meeting, she tells Arthur that the system doesn’t care about people like him, nor does it care about people like her. She implies that, despite their differences, they have more in common than he may realize. But as a nameless black figure, the audience is left to make assumptions based on her race and gender. She is a powerless cog in the wheel of a bullshit bureaucracy, and he is a victim of it; both are members of the disenfranchised.
In his quest for emotional connection, Arthur dreams of his neighbor Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz). Arthur lives in a tenement with his mother in a working-class district of the Bronx; Sophie, the single black mother of a five-year-old girl, lives down the hall. The first time the audience meets Sophie and her kid comes when they encounter Arthur in their building’s ramshackle elevator. In contrast to the black mother and son on the bus, his experience with Sophie is pleasant from the start. She appears more sympathetic, but ultimately what aligns them is they both live in a section of Gotham that’s seemingly rife with marginalized and impoverished segments of the population.
The end of the film unfolds in Arkham State Hospital; Phillips shot the scene’s interiors at Harlem’s historically black Metropolitan Hospital. Arthur, secured in a chair within brightly lit and claustrophobic environs, is seated across from another nameless black woman, this one a psychiatrist (“Arkham Psychiatrist,” played by April Grace; she’s the same actress who beautifully dressed down Tom Cruise’s Frank T.J. Mackey in “Magnolia”). Arthur tries to contain his trademark laugh, and when the psychiatrist asks for the cause of his laughter, he says she would not understand the joke.
Arthur is resigned to being misunderstood: He struggles to be seen, but is always painfully aware that he’s invisible to most. He longs to find human connection. And while he doesn’t quite get everything he wants out of the aforementioned interactions with black women, they are arguably the only characters in the film that show him any semblance of humanity. They see him, they don’t mock him or his condition, and they don’t attack or mistreat him. At best, they want to help him; at worst, they simply tolerate him.
The victims of Arthur’s ire — specifically, those the audience sees him kill — are everything that these women are not. They are primarily white people who he sees as an affront: three men on the subway; Arthur’s co-worker; Robert De Niro’s condescending late-night host Murray Franklin; and his mother.
Arthur even appears to have empathy for the kids of color who, early in the film, steal his billboard, make him chase them, and them physically assault him when he catches up. He readily dismisses them as just a bunch of kids who don’t know any better.
But at what point does this well-meaning group of anonymous people of a shared race — and largely, gender — become another kind of trope? Deprived of individuality, they become a contrived device.
Phillips’ placement of black women throughout the film appears deliberate and therefore impossible to ignore, although maybe less so for anyone who isn’t a black woman. To wit: It’s been recognized by a number of black women writers including Beandrea July for TIME, Zeba Blay for Huffington Post, and Constance Gibbs for The Nerds of Color. (Phillips did not respond to a request for comment on this story.)
Further buttressing these views: Phillips seems to align Arthur’s trials with those of working-class (itself a racialized term) people of color who apparently populate much of his world; and with the 1980s, a period in which America under Ronald Reagan saw his socio-economic policies further disenfranchise African Americans. It’s possible that Phillips had the presence of mind to recognize how black people were negated at that time, and by aligning Fleck with these prominently featured and anonymous people of color, created a commentary that sympathizes with their plight.
Or not. There’s no shortage of “Joker” theories that Phillips writes off to coincidence. And certainly, “Joker” could be read solely as a portrait of mental illness. The interior world of an overmedicated character who suffers from schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder, and post-traumatic stress must be so impaired that relationships with any external reality are warped, if not entirely disconnected.
And so with an unreliable narrator like Fleck/Joker, the truth is left open to interpretation. Maybe the entire film is his fantasy, and the only reality is that he’s been locked up in Arkham all along. It could also be that Phillips had a studio mandate to populate the film with a diverse cast. Whatever the truth, the lack of attention to this side of “Joker” speaks to a diversity problem that extends beyond the industry; it involves the people tasked with assessing its quality as well. Its reception exposes as much about the media’s blindspots as it does the movie’s: Like the nameless women who populate Fleck’s universe, they’re hiding in plain sight.
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