“I feel very honoured and privileged to be here tonight. The BAFTAs have always been very supportive of my career and I'm deeply appreciative,” said Joaquin Phoenix while collecting his award at the 2020 BAFTAs (British Academy of Film Awards), “but I have to say that I also feel conflicted because so many of my fellow actors that are deserving don't have that same privilege. I think that we send a very clear message to people of colour that you're not welcome here.”
Joaquin Phoenix has received widespread critical acclaim for his portrayal of Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill stand-up comedian who later descended towards insanity in the 2020 psychological thriller film Joker, and the BAFTA was one of the several accolades that he bagged home. (He later went on to win the Academy Award as well).
Descended from Puerto Rican American parents, Phoenix had a glamorous career of almost 34 years in Hollywood and it can come as a mild surprise to many that this was his first BAFTA win. Truth be told, Joker was not Phoenix’s best and he had delivered many other powerful roles previously (check The Master, if you doubt me). There is also the fact that Phoenix simply excels in psychological films and quite frankly, many of his films primarily focus on that category.
Also a human activist, Phoenix has often voiced strongly on the importance of diversity in films and against the racial partiality that the Hollywood media generally tends to have towards artists of colour. Even though things have improved a lot over the recent years, many are not quite welcoming such changes openly and still hold grudging, conservative views towards diversity.
If we trace all the way back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, we get classic performances from actors of colour which quite didn’t gain the deserved recognition.
Morgan Freeman was one such pioneer in this road. Driving Miss Daisy and Shawshank Redemption are films where Freeman delivered his absolute best, simply unparalleled works which continue to be a challenge even for the best of the present day actors to give the audience. Freeman received his first Oscar win at the age of 69 in 2005, despite earning previous nominations for the said films.
Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm X in the 1993 film of the same name is one of those rare works that can be labelled as pure ‘classic’. In spite of being well-received by reviewers and critics that year, the film was overlooked, along with the actor, in the major accolade competitions. These were films that focused mainly on the social problems and apartheid in the American communities and tended to give the audience an insight of how lives were for many immigrants.
Now, upon closer inspection, it is necessary to comprehend how and why these films were not successful and less well-received, compared to films which dealt with lighter themes like romantic comedy movies. The answer is quite simple – audience interest.
In truth, romantic films do not give us an outlook on social problems on a wide scale. Consider one male and one female – X and Y – who are about to become a couple, and in the process of it, encounter some challenges. These stories are easy to follow since they do not convey heavy, thought-provoking political or social messages in overall, just random everyday problems of urban, upper class lives (and even these are often exaggerated because marriage issues in real life are not so dramatic or cinematic as they point out).
And the white directors surely did a fine job; they were not stupid and realised where major audience interest lies and primarily this led to their dominance over films like Cry Freedom, Malcolm X and Driving Miss Daisy. And why was it like that? Were the white audience afraid of facing the truth of what their ancestors did in the past, or reluctant to face the reality? Maybe a bit of both? As they say, it’s easier to hide from the truth than facing it.
Joker has been a blockbuster success, yet receptions over the film have been mixed. Many criticised the film for highlighting violence in a positive way and that is not just in America but in other countries as well.
Prior to delving deep into this topic, let’s face the other reality – Hollywood simply has a knack and reputation for making violent movies. Stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvestar Stallone, Quentin Tarantino, the Cohen Brothers, and Bruce Willis have been making violent, action-packed movies throughout their career and very few complain about those. On the contrary, theirs are the movies that the American public generally crave for - just take a glance at the fan base of these stars and you will understand.
In addition, there are violent drama movies that have been remarkably well-received by the Hollywood Academy. Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, There will be Blood, and No Country For Old Men are prominent crime drama movies which have bagged numerous awards. The latter two films were ironically released in the same year, 2007, and were contenders for Academy Award for Best Picture (which No Country For Old Men went on to win). The actors did a remarkable job in these films - as it must be admitted - which is also one of the key reasons they were so applauded by reviewers.
On the other hand, the violence depicted in these movies at times proved to be gruesomely compelling: one mass murderer trying to hunt down the other and blood thirsty psychopaths aiming for revenge while causing havoc, destruction and pain. “Violence leads to chaos” seems to be the only message they try to deliver, albeit in a gritty sort of way. In Joker, we see the violence and conflict between lower and upper class, the poor protesting against the rich in the fictional city of Gotham.
One would remember one scene where one protester raised a signboard that read ‘fascist’, demonstrating open rebellion against the ayor and the police. It’s not difficult to understand the kind of reaction that would stir up among many individuals upon seeing such scenes, especially those societies or countries where more than 75 per cent of the population is wealthy (for instance, the American society).
In addition, we cannot expect bureaucratic societies (like the North Korean society, for one) to be receiving films of such kind in a positive way, lest it stir up revolt from the lower class against the government.
Arthur Fleck, the mentally ill protagonist of ‘Joker’, moved towards a life of crime, chaos and insanity after being shunned, bullied, abused and ignored the entire life. This is where the film perhaps fails to deliver its message in an appropriate way. While many individuals all over the world are facing mental insecurities and are leading unhappy and unhealthy lives, violence is by no means a solution to any problem.
However, people need to acknowledge the conditions such people are living in and come to their aid as much as possible. We need to widen our vision further and see the sufferings of others with a greater insight and use compassion and love as the guiding principles to implement systems of change which could be beneficial to all sorts of beings and, not to mention, to keep the social environment. As is quoted by Joaquin Phoenix himself - run to the path of love and peace will follow.
Taoheed Al-Rabbi is a student of Bangladesh University of Professionals (BUP). He can be reached at [email protected]