Joker’s premiere at the 76th Venice International Film Festival [8/31] draws an eight-minute standing ovation for Phillips and Phoenix, along with a critical outpouring of praise for the actor’s performance as Fleck, a mentally ill sad sack and aspiring comedian who remakes himself as an icon of violent societal overthrow. Initial shock that Warner Bros. would deem the film worthy of placing it in competition at such a prestigious awards season subsiding, the conversation around the film quickly turned to its prospects for Academy gold. “Absolutely. It will be in the running,” Venice director Alberto Barbera told Deadline.

Joker goes on to claim the Golden Lion, the festival’s top prize.

Amid the Venice praise, however, comes full-fledged, pointed criticism, too. “In America, there’s a mass shooting or attempted act of violence by a guy like Arthur practically every other week,” Stephanie Zacharek wrote for Time. “And yet we’re supposed to feel some sympathy for Arthur, the troubled lamb; he just hasn’t had enough love … the movie lionizes and glamorizes Arthur even as it shakes its head, faux-sorrowfully, over his violent behavior.”

After the excerpt listed above, this article goes on trace the timeline of the controversy surrounding the new Joker film, from the early buzz it began to receive in fall of 2017 to today, October 2019, with the FBI warning of incels that might act out violently due to the movie’s contents. I want to say, from the outset, that I strongly disagree with those who wish to ban Joker, as I fully believe that they do not understand the movie: the movie neither depicts a mass shooting spree nor does it in any way glamorize or promote gun violence.

Rather, I’d argue that Joker is one of the most important films of our time because it blatantly addresses how we as a society — not just the big government — fail those who are mentally ill. 

Arthur Fleck (Joker) was abused as a child, abused as an adult. He had trouble holding a job due to a neurological condition that developed from said abuse (also the reason for his uncontrollable laugh). He was poor, only able to afford therapy, as well as medications, that the government provided, until funding was cut, and both of these were stripped away from him. He never felt seen or noticed, and not one person in his life was kind to him. He knew the therapist didn’t care or didn’t listen. As he sat on a bus, laughing uncontrollably, he handed a card to a fellow passenger, which explained his condition and offered an apology. Instead of showing empathy, the passenger acted disgusted that he would dare to make an appearance in public.

Photo by Quentin Rey on Unsplash

He had no one.

Does this justify what he did? Absolutely not. But it does highlight how important it is that we as a society continue to overturn the stigma surrounding mental illness, to help those in need find necessary resources, and above all, to show kindness.

If we continue to just throw around words like “crazy” and bully or completely avoid those who we don’t see as normative, we are only going to perpetuate violence of all kinds (all of which the film shows brilliantly).

There’s one moment, in particular, where Joker is sitting outside the hospital after his mother has a stroke. The police officers come up to question him, and they badger him about his laugh: is it real, they ask, or just part of an act. You can visibly see his frustration at getting people to see that he and his condition are real. My heart sank as I thought about the amount of times I’ve had people doubt my own mental illness(es).

This is just one example, one moment, in a two-hour film that had me thinking and feeling and burning with a sense of urgency from start to finish. It’s impossible to see it without being convicted.

The people who want to ban it for the sake of gun violence do not understand what the film is actually about. If we silence this film, we will continue to silence the large population of us who are mentally ill.

That said, it is undoubtedly an uncomfortable watch — in the best way — and as the film ended, I felt the same solemnity that I remember feeling after seeing The Passion of the Christ.

Even though we knew there was no after-credits scene, like we have come to expect with those films of the MCU, everyone in the audience was slow to move. Eventually, we all began quietly shuffling out, presumably, I would hope, feeling that same sense of disgust, guilt, and urgent need to change the system that both my husband and I were heavy with.

Joker is not shy AT ALL about being explicitly concerned with our societal neglect of the mentally ill and, in particular, our lack of empathy. It is not trying to offer an excuse for those who commit violent acts. It is, however, showing how we need to do more than just enforce tighter gun regulations. Laws only go so far.

If you have a story about mental illness — whether personal or concerning a loved one — please consider sharing your experience by writing a guest post, doing an interview with one of us, or joining the team as a regular contributor. Even if you aren’t at a place yet where you feel comfortable disclosing your name, the church body needs your voice. Let’s shine a light on the darkness, together.


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