I spent a large part of my adolescent life watching movies.
There were the Monday night TV movies that my whole family would watch together. There were scary moments like when my father fell out of the window while we were watching Friday the 13th, exhilarating moments like when Ferris Bueller took over downtown Chicago twisting and shouting and, for a Black family like mine, confrontational racial moments like when Whoopi Goldberg kissed Patrick Swayze in a now-iconic scene from the movie Ghost.
When I was old enough I started going to the downtown cinemas by myself.
Sometimes I would go two times a week (Tuesdays and Wednesdays had students’ rates).
I loved my heroes: Hamill, J Fox, Nelson, Estevez, Dempsey, Cusack, Hamilton, Bullock, Ringwood…
It didn’t matter if they were male or female, but with the exception of Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop, all of them were White.
Little did I know at the time, but I was being brainwashed by the entertainment industry to think binarily.
White person = Good.
Everyone else = Bad.
So why did I connect with Tyler Durden, D-fens, Travis Bickle and the Joker?
There is a long legacy in cinema of White men as anti-heroes, diffusing the responsibility for their actions. When the Joker points at us (society) as the reason for his senseless rage and killing, he is following that same legacy.
Black Characters in Cinema
Hollywood has produced a number of movies that represent what I would call ‘the ideal Negro Character’. In my experience, both from watching films and from real life, Black people are not afforded the privilege of being average.
In films such as 12 years a Slave, Remember the Titans, The Pursuit of Happyness, Mandela, Fences, Hidden Figures, City Of God (to name a few), there is a common thread. They all tell stories about a Black person who is oppressed, murdered and humiliated by everyone around them (especially by White men).
In Remember the Titans, for example, Denzel Washington plays an American football coach who is more experienced, more qualified and more educated than his White counterpart. He endures all sorts of racist tirades, is given bananas by his adversary’s coaches and is shot at in a drive-by shooting.
Despite this he rises above it all. He befriends some of his offenders and leads them to victory. Beautiful right? The end. Until the next movie.
Because the same goes for other plotlines. Despite the adversity, all we have to do is insist on our rights, study, work ten times harder, and, eventually, be rewarded (maybe) with the most basic dignity because, finally, we deserve it.
This is a fallacy. The lie sold to us that all a person has to do is work hard and have some endurance, and then they will succeed, is Machiavellian.
In Hidden Figures the main character Dorothy Vaughan (played spectacularly by Octavia Spencer) is continuously denied fair recognition. When she takes her children to the local library, the books she requires—such as the programming language ones—are in the Whites-only section. There is a line in the movie that illustrates this perfectly: ‘Every time we get a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line.’
Any Black person alive knows it all too well: the oppressor will flip the table even if it means imminent personal loss or even societal destruction. Their hate is blinding and limiting.
The oppressor would rather die than accept our humanity. Which brings me to Joker and the rise of the self-pitying White man.
The White hero
The premise of a White man with mediocre intellectual ability and poor socio-economic standing, struggling to fit into society, was the exact premise of another movie released over 40 years ago.
In Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), the main character, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), is supposed to be seen as unlikable and as a misfit. His relationship with a 14-year-old sex worker, Iris ‘Easy’ Steensma (Jodie Foster), is both the epitome and reaffirmation of his unsavoury personality. His racism is just another sign of his inability to work within society.
His dialogue when speaking with Black people is a textbook reflection of his own self. He hates us as the ‘other’ because, in reality, he hates himself for not having what he sees as his ‘White man entitlement’. It’s only in being racist that Travis can consider himself superior. His racism is an escape from reality. He is clearly a sociopath, a loser and, in my view, his violence does not seem to be endorsed by the story’s plot line.
Fast forward to 1993, to another anti-hero White man. The year is important to note because in the previous year Bill Clinton won the presidency of the United States of America. The idea that White men were losing territory to affirmative action for Black rights, women’s rights and to the ‘liberals’ in general was confronting to conservative men (read: White men, mostly) at the time. The movie is Falling Down.
William Foster (Michael Douglas) is having a ‘bad day’: when his car breaks down on a Los Angeles highway, he abandons his vehicle and begins to trek across the city to get to his daughter’s birthday party.
Hannah Arendt writes, ‘The most horrifying things about the Nazis was not that they were so deviant but that they were terrifyingly normal’.
We have become so used to pitying the White man, and viewing him as a hero, that it is no surprise that this synopsis encourages empathy among us. And empathise I did. I clearly remember watching the movie and thinking he was the hero. He was fighting for the common man.
However, in hindsight, little did I know that he was all along fighting for White supremacy.
I needed to look closer.
All the antagonists on Foster’s trail are racialised. He encounters exaggerated, out-of-control Latino gangs. He goes on a rant about (neo-liberal minimum) governments, budgets and outrageous conspiracy theories. Then Foster learns how to shoot a bazooka with a 12-year-old Black child. This scene specifically plays into the idea of Black people as being inherently violent.
I recall thinking the scene was funny at the time: the idea that inner-city Black children were knowledgeable about guns and even bazookas seemed to me like harmless social commentary, but I see now that it was more sinister than my teenage self could ever realise.
I now watch the scene and scenes like them for what they are: dehumanising propaganda.
Foster proceeds to blow up a construction site and somehow you feel that the Black kid is the villain.
Scenes like this feed on racism, help it to thrive and to exist. Hollywood profits again and again from racialised realities and fears, which consequently perpetuates racism itself. Rather than fight stereotyping, they contribute to it.
White male characters are often applauded for their hostile and criminal behaviour: they are seen as anarchists, who are ‘sticking it to the man’. Take Catch Me If You Can for example. Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) repeatedly commits crimes and fraudulent acts upon individuals and society. However, everything he does, no matter how absurd—or criminal—is viewed as a great triumph. The movie is based on the real-life Frank Abagnale, who end up getting a gig at the FBI after his small stint in Federal Prison. If a Black person were to act similarly, what would have happened? In Alabama in 1984, a 22-year-old Black man spent over 35 years in jail for stealing $50 – at the time he was sentenced to life, without the possibility of parole. In 1974, ten years earlier, the real-life Frank Abagnale was released after serving less than five years of his twelve-year sentence.
In another scene in Falling Down, Foster attacks a Korean grocery shop, harassing the Korean owner for not speaking ‘proper’ English, for being ungrateful to ‘his’ country, for being a thief for charging prices that he, the ‘regular White man’, finds exorbitant. It is the kind of racist rant rarely seen on movie screens. Watching the scene while researching this article, I had to wince.
Another movie I considered influential to my life was Fight Club (1999). This film is an actual manifestation of the dual-personality that anti-hero White men experience as characters in movies, where the character finds it hard to deal with a society in which he feels he is no longer the sole controller. An emasculated insurance broker, our unnamed narrator played by Edward Norton, meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a mysterious soap salesman. The two form an unlikely friendship. Norton’s character is the physical manifestation of the ordinary White man. A man with a good, stable job who, for some reason, is unhappy. He has higher and sometimes unreasonable expectations for his life.
In reality (as in these movies) White men believe the world is broken if they are not running it. They believe that they should not be as low (read: equal) on the hierarchy as White women, Blacks, Asians or Hispanics. It may be a simplistic view of Whiteness—and I am sure there are better and more academic ways to explore this phenomenon—but you get the picture, don’t you?
You see, for White men and their depictions in film, the mere possibility of not being 100% in control at all times means that the system must be rigged —and, because of this, the system must be destroyed.
When I first watched these films I found myself aligning with their views, purely from an anarchist angle. But, in practical terms, the mayhem they proposed would disproportionately affect minority groups.
In times of havoc, folk will look for what is safer. As I’ve illustrated above, cinema has consistently sold us the idea of White men being this safe harbour.
In this way, the election of Trump reminds me of the plot of Fight Club.
Boiled down, Trump is basically Tyler Durden: an emasculated White man who fears losing his status in society.
In Fight Club, the characters’ intentions were to destroy the financial system.
Some White men (and women) in the United States took the election of Barack Obama as direct attacks on their livelihood. The 2016 election was a way to ‘reclaim’ their power. By destroying those critical advances made by the Obama government to improve healthcare, access to education, and liveable wages for all—advances that significantly benefited Black people and people of colour—Trump voters made it clear that a system that works for non-White people was not a system that would work for them. They would rather destroy the system, and democracy itself. In other words: they’d rather choose nihilism over the possibility of sharing an equal world with people whom they consider inferior.
These White men will not acknowledge one simple truth: that we are all equal and that everyone deserves a fair go. We need tools of equity to compensate for centuries of destruction.
In all of these movies (and, often, in life. See: Trump), White men play the victim when actually they are the perpetrators of destruction.
In Joker we are pushed to feel empathy towards Arthur Fleck. The character, played spectacularly by Joaquin Phoenix, is pushed to the ‘edge’: he is pushed to murder.
He feels ostracised by a society that treats him unfairly, a society that doesn’t care, that doesn’t place him where he truly belongs: at the centre. Fleck is oppressed by wealthy White men, rejected by them, and is made to live with other poor Whites and Blacks.
Throughout the movie, all of his interactions with Black people are with Black women, whom he antagonises in a manner that references Incel culture.
I understand that Joker is a commercial enterprise that is trying to make as much money as possible. To do this, the movie tries to capture the ethos of the White men of our time and, may I add, it does this very well. The problem is that the movie helps to propel the idea of the ‘oppressed White man’, the man with no resources left but murder and destruction. Nihilism, for the oppressed White man, is the only choice.
The movie itself acts as a kind of last cry:
‘Look at us.’
‘We are suffering too.’
‘Please understand us.’
‘This is why we voted to destroy democracy.’
‘Can’t you understand you made us do it?’
Watching this movie as a Black person feels like a call to accept the oppressor’s narrative, and therefore accept defeat. Feelings are universal and, as Maya Angelou once put it: ‘What is true somewhere is true anywhere.’
I’ve recently learned that there is nothing more powerful than a man—or a group of men—who feels oppressed. They will fight with everything they have to achieve what they want. Fighting for your freedom gives you power that you did not know you had.
In my view, White men are not under attack and they are far from being oppressed, but, somehow, this is how many of them feel at this moment in history. Understanding this is paramount to fighting it, and correcting the course of humanity.
In Hidden Figures and in Remember the Titans, when Black and White people actually cooperate, great things happen. Young university athletes advance to the state championship, and Apollo 11 lands on the moon—which is to say, success comes from when we as humanity work together towards shared goals. It’s interesting to think that both of these examples are based on true stories.
If I am being honest, I’m resentful of the racism I’ve experienced both in life and in cinema. How could I not be? But this does not change the fact that, every day, I am willing to give every White person I encounter a fair go. I mean, of course—it shouldn’t be any different. I am far from advocating otherwise.
I want to humanise and individualise—and I demand to be humanised and individualised too.