At an early age most of us are taught not to judge a book by its cover. That’s exactly what happened this summer, when the Universal/Blumhouse release of The Hunt was shut down following political pushback. The film is based on an updated version of The Most Dangerous Game that gave some, including President Trump, discomfort with its political implications without having watched the movie. It has become far too common for people to jump to conclusions based on a film’s synopsis or advertising. The most recent controversy follows Joker, a film based in the Gotham City universe, that has led some to feel the story will inspire real-world killers. The problem, of course, is that a film about an unhinged murderer isn’t any more likely to provoke imposters than the news coverage of the same events in real life.
The highly anticipated Joker was released this past Friday amidst a wave of press coverage that has been building for weeks. Similar to The Hunt, the pushback started as soon as trailers launched. Law enforcement went as far as to increase security in some theaters. Two advocacy groups — Survivors Empowered and Guns Down America — wrote a letter of protest to Warner Bros. fearing the film’s potential influence. Sandy Philips, whose daughter was killed in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, said, “My worry is that one person who may be out there — and who knows if it is just one — who is on the edge, who is wanting to be a mass shooter, may be encouraged by this movie. And that terrifies me.”
Warner Bros. responded with a statement that shared sympathies with victims of recent shootings. The studio also defended their film, writing that “Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues. Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.” Director Todd Philips and star Joaquin Phoenix have also come out in defense of the film.
Joker executive producer and longtime caretaker of Gotham City on the big screen Michael Uslan was asked about his thoughts on the potential danger the film poses in our society. Uslan told the Asbury Park Press, “I would almost turn that question over to the teachers of film around the world, to the academicians, as to what is the role of cinema, thematically (and with regard to) responsibility.” As a film historian, I’m happy to oblige this suggestion.
Uslan describes how his favorite films have “held up a mirror to our society, and there are times when people don’t want to see that reflection, they want to run from it. They don’t want to acknowledge it because sometimes the reflection shows warts and all, whether it’s biases and prejudices or what’s happened to our society, reflecting the times.” With the number of high-profile instances of violence, the Joker is a perfect metaphor for our society. He isn’t easy to look at, but he represents the true dark side of humanity that many prefer to ignore. Uslan continued, “If anything, I believe movies can shake people up and bring issues to attention, whether it’s about guns or the need to treat mental illness or the need for civility and for us to start talking with each other instead of at each other again. You can’t suppress that, you can’t censor that.”
Crime films have long been controversial, not only with audiences and censors but also with law enforcement. Gangster films were all the rage coming out of the Roaring Twenties. Popular crime films like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy made Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney stars in 1931. The genre ultimately played a central role in the Payne Fund studies, which began in 1929 and monitored the influence of movies on youth. On September 23, 1931, amidst all the discussion of crime films, New York mayor Jimmy Walker came to Chicago and declared, “Take the gangster off page one and you will take him out of existence.” This novel idea relies on the assumption that films about criminals glorify their lifestyle. When Scarface (1932) was released after a nearly two-year battle with local and industry censors, the film was banned in Chicago and other places around the country. After John Dillinger was killed in 1934, the head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association released a memo stating that there would be no release of any film based on bank robber’s harrowing crime spree.
Despite the inconclusive findings of the Payne studies, and fearing possible government interventions, Hollywood still gave into social and political pressure against movies. Hollywood revamped their Production Code in 1934, which included rules against “throwing sympathy to the side of crime, wrongdoing, or sin.” Of course, these measures changed movies and watered down the risqué content that was prevalent in early 1930s Hollywood. However, these measures of changing the image of the gangster certainly did not stop the rise of real-life gangsters Johnny Rosselli, Bugsy Siegel, Mickey Cohen, Frank Costello, and scores of others. We are interested with these characters because versions of them exist in our world.
In 1948, social critic Robert Warshow wrote one of his most famous essays, titled “The Gangster as Tragic Hero.” Warshow muses on how the gangster personifies the city and becomes a voice of mass culture. “Not the real city,” writes Warshow, “but that dangerous and sad city of the imagination.” Gotham City, where the Joker presides, is a prominent city of our imagination Warshow argues that the gangster is also a “creature of the imagination.” The Joker has long served as a similar villain of our worst nightmares (unless it’s the Caesar Romero one, of course). “The real city,” Warshow continues, “produces-only-criminals; the imaginary city produces the gangster: he is what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become.” Warshow understood both that the gangster on the screen was not the gangster on the streets of Chicago and the human potential to fall into a life of crime. Movies should be considered for their mimetic quality that help us understand the world around us. The Joker in all its variations has the ability to put us into relationship with parts of life we may not know.
Those who take the time to see Joker will find that it isn’t the ultra-violent juggernaut some have anticipated. Instead of being action-driven like most superhero films, Joker is a nuanced look at mental illness and the impact of trauma in a society that prefers to look the other way. The film is a throwback in style to 1970s filmmaking and has direct nods to both Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1980), which Robert De Niro alluded to in a recent interview. Viewers may also see some comparison to Network (1976), the prophetic film about a television personality taking his anger out on the world with his contagious line “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
In Joker, Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is mad as hell and has very good reason to be. Society has failed him. Nobody took his concerns seriously. Fleck was seeing a social worker, but the city cut funding for his services and medications. Fleck isn’t stupid, though he has suffered deep traumatic experiences that have shaped his life. He knows he needs help, but that assistance falls short at every turn. There is nothing fantastical, alluring, or glamorous about it. This Joker isn’t funny, suave, or cool in any way.
Once Fleck snaps, we cannot help but be reminded of all the times his violence could have been prevented. We often hear talk about calling out red flags of instability, though it doesn’t happen often enough. If this becomes common practice, tragedies like the shooting in Aurora can be avoided. Certainly, the victims and families associated with such crimes don’t need any reminders about that. However, there are many out there that still do. Fleck is told unequivocally by his social worker, “they [city officials] don’t care about people like you.” Anyone who has worked with or around the mental health field understands the stark truth in this scene.
Fleck doesn’t hurt anyone during the first half of the film. “Hurt people, hurt people,” is a line you may hear from a mental health professional. That’s exactly what Fleck is, a hurt person who has endured great trauma throughout his life. He doesn’t just fall into a vat of toxic sludge and go crazy; he was molded by a society that could have molded him into something else. Both Uslan and Warner Bros. hope this film will spark discussion, the deluge of press coverage is proof that it has. To some critics’ dismay, Joker is a cold tale about the social and cultural isolation created by individual trauma. When audiences see the complexity of Fleck’s trauma history, and how society responds to it, they will not be surprised by his trajectory. Joker works to draw attention to the ripple effects of trauma.
Just before the Joker premiere in Hollywood, director Todd Philips told the audience, “I think it’s time to let the film speak for itself.” Simple, yet revelatory, because films can and should speak for themselves. Our society often gets revved up about popular culture it hasn’t seen or knows nothing about — always eager to throw down over ill-informed presuppositions. After watching The Hunt get effectively blacklisted, it’s all that much more important to let films speak before making assumptions about them. None of this is to say that concern over violence is overstated, but we should be more cognizant of the root causes such a general lack of funding and support for mental health.
Instead of pushing the crime and murder off of our screens, maybe we should instead work to rid it from our culture. That way, when movies reflect our world, we will be looking at a much better image flickering back at us.
Chris Yogerst is assistant professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee whose writing has appeared in The Washington Post and The Hollywood Reporter. His next book about the 1941 Senate investigation into motion picture propaganda is due out in 2020.