Be warned, this is a spoiler-heavy article.
When I saw Joker at the Toronto International Film Festival, the main question I wanted answered was: Do the Black people die in this movie? Spoiler alert: they don’t. At least not on screen. Clearly, the director, Todd Phillips, knew what it would look like if they were to die by the Joker’s hand (even if he doesn’t seem to quite know how to do a press tour). But that doesn’t mean all is well for positive representation in the widely divisive movie.
Joker is one of those movies that has a white main cast but tries to fill in the gaps of their lack of representation by putting people of color in supporting and background roles to say they tried. In a movie like Joker, where the protagonist is a villain, I’d sometimes rather the PoC don’t show up at all, since I spend every moment they’re on screen tense that they will die. We know going in that Arthur is loosely tethered to reality, and that he is going to go on a killing spree at any moment. So every person of color who appears on the screen is in danger. The movie starts with a mixed-race group of boys ruthlessly antagonizing Arthur, so I immediately thought they’d be first on the chopping block once Arthur takes his deadly turn, but the movie doesn’t return to them at all. Similarly, Brian Tyree Henry makes an appearance as an employee at Arkham Hospital, but at most gets a papercut.
My focus was, however, on the four Black women characters that appear with speaking lines in the movie. The biggest problem with them? None of them are named. Not the caseworker who is trying to help Arthur (Sharon Washington), not the Black woman he meets on the bus (Mandela Bellamy), not the Arkham psychiatrist at the end (April Grace), and not even Zazie Beetz’ character, Arthur’s down the hall neighbor. I thought it was a problem with all the women in the movie, of which there aren’t too many more, but Arthur’s mother Penny Fleck is clearly named and we all know Martha Wayne.
Each of these Black women presented a threat to Arthur’s loose grip on his sanity. The caseworker loses her funding and Arthur loses his access to his meds. The Black woman on the bus yells at Arthur for talking to her kid, igniting his “chronic” manic laughing disorder. And the Arkham psychiatrist, who Arthur meets when he’s finally gone off the deep end, may not have even survived — based on the bloody footprints left in Arthur’s wake. These were supporting roles and they don’t have names, neither spoken aloud nor shown on-screen elsewhere. They’re not even named on IMDb.
Zazie’s character is a bit more complicated. She’s not named on-screen but clearly had one in the script and in the press descriptions of her character. On IMDb, she’s listed as Sophie Dumond.
She and Arthur live on the same floor and they connect over their poor living conditions early in the movie. He pines after her, even following her as she drops her daughter off to school and heads to work. (Big, big yikes.) Then, rather suddenly, she appears to become Arthur’s pseudo-girlfriend, a romantic win after Arthur’s first kill. She’d noticed him following her and was into it. She flirts with him and he plucks up the courage to march down to her door and kiss her. She goes to his comedy shows and comforts him when his mother gets ill, and through all this, we never even hear her name.
It makes some sort of sense, in the end, when we learn this was all fantasy. Arthur imagined all his scenes where they were a couple; he never knew her name to be able to speak it out loud. It’s the strongest fantasy sequence in the film, even more so than Arthur’s imaginings of being on his comedy idol’s talk show. So when the masquerade breaks and he sits in her apartment with rising pent up rage, you’re not sure if he’s going to attack her for not being the girl of his fantasies. He leaves her and Zazie is dropped for the rest of the movie. Does Arthur take his revenge? Unclear. In two hours, we learn nothing about her except she’s his neighbor and she has a daughter. We can’t even be sure of her fate.
I suppose I get it. Arthur has trouble connecting with people, so perhaps he wouldn’t know their names. But this narrative trick, as I believe it’s meant to be, does nothing thousands of movies haven’t already done in this regard. Black women often go unnamed in movies, in television. They’re written as tropes with no substance. The Black woman psychiatrist/emotional support. The white man’s fantasy. The sassy, angry woman on a bus. Black women existing to be props to a white main character? Yawn, seen it before.
So… Do the Black women survive this movie? Perhaps. At least none of them die on screen, the film relying on lots of ambiguity in the end. But given the nature of the film (grim, bleak, violent, oppressive), it’s not a world I want them to live in, nor is it one I, especially as a Black woman viewer, want to return to. Even if I did, no one would know my name.