Oscars 2020: How Joaquin Phoenix, not Joker, became a voice for the voiceless this awards season

Prahlad Srihari

Feb 11, 2020 08:44:59 IST

The Oscars have been handed out, and the awards season pageantry has finally concluded. So Hollywood celebrities are off on their private jets, back to their privileged lives in Palm Springs. Maybe not Joaquin Phoenix, who you may see at the next climate change protest unless his previous appearances were just a campaign tactic. The Joker star got his speechifying game on like no one else this season. If Brad Pitt kept his quips crisp, Phoenix focused his tirades on one crisis at a time before an all-encompassing sermon at the Oscars.

Maybe the Oscar-winning actor hired a politically active speechwriter to redress some of the criticism his film Joker has faced in its portrait of a narcissist who sinks into a spiral of murderous madness. Or maybe issues like climate change, gender equality, and systemic racism are issues close to his heart, like animal rights have been all through his life. No doubt we would rather hear such impassioned pleas demanding changes across the industry, than endless tributes to producers, agents, and rest of the Hollywood circle jerk.

 Oscars 2020: How Joaquin Phoenix, not Joker, became a voice for the voiceless this awards season

A still from Joker

In fact, Phoenix's acceptance speeches and the change(s) they may drive could empower the voiceless in a way Joker never could. Todd Phillips' Clown Prince of Crime is the extreme personification of a deeply divided world. The exploitative capitalism of his Gotham highlights the social inequalities of a system which divides rather than unifies the population. But Phoenix stresses the importance of finding a “commonality” in our fight against all injustices. “I think, whether we’re talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice,” he said at the Oscars. “We’re talking about the fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender, one species, has the right to dominate, use and control another with impunity."

In his speech at BAFTAs, Phoenix took the stage to raise awareness about the lack of inclusiveness after no black actors were nominated for a second year in a row. But it is not just about inclusivity or diversity, he stressed the need to understand the cause for such disparity in the industry: "systemic racism." He then admitted his own complicity in these persisting injustices. “I don’t think anybody wants a handout or preferential treatment although that’s what we give ourselves every year. I think people just want to be acknowledged, appreciated and respected for their work. This is not a self-righteous condemnation because I’m ashamed to say that I’m part of the problem.”

Phoenix also called out Hollywood for having an inflated sense of self-importance and disregarding others, "I think we’ve become very disconnected... Many of us are guilty of an egocentric world view, and we believe that we’re the centre of the universe." He acknowledged his own selfish and cruel behaviour in the past, thankful for being given a second chance in a cancel culture which does not allow for them.

Of course, it was his concern for animals that rang truest as he exposed the dark side of the pastoral dairy farm where cows are treated like nothing but milk-producing machines. "We go into the natural world and we plunder it for its resources. We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow and steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakeable. Then we take her milk that’s intended for her calf and we put it in our coffee and our cereal," he lamented.

Throughout this awards season, his words have revealed a truth more compelling than fiction. For instance, Joker chooses to use the spectacle of dissent and fashionable anarchy over a nuanced understanding of violent extremism. With Travis Bickle, filmmaker Martin Scorsese gave us a similar portrait in Taxi Driver, where he dissects the enduring American myth of individualism, without obscuring the motives underlying the radical notions of its protagonist. Similarly, Stanley Kubrick gave us a far more compelling portrait of misanthropic nihilism in A Clockwork Orange.

But all Joker can offer us is a poor joke with a weak punchline ("What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you f**king deserve."). But if Phillips simply wants to illustrate the problems with the world, Phoenix hopes to find some sort of a solution. So, if Phillips is descriptive, Phoenix is prescriptive. "I think it is the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it,” he said.

A still from Joker

A still from Joker

However, some of the critics of Joker have been guilty of condemning the symptoms, rather than the cause. Many were worried the film would inspire "incels" and "clowncels" to shoot up schools and theatres, instead of focusing on the larger issues of America's gun culture and the misogyny that breeds its incels' sense of sexual entitlement. But by singling out Phillips, they were simply shooting the messenger.

Phoenix thus offers hope in his speeches, articulating the need for awareness and reform ("When we educate each other; when we guide each other to redemption"), rather than simply indulging in self-pity ("I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realise, it's a f**king comedy."). In the process, he thus brings up a vital point on how our democratic participation does not end at the ballot. As he puts it, "It's great to vote, but sometimes we have to take that responsibility on ourselves and make changes and sacrifices in our own lives."

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Updated Date: Feb 11, 2020 10:42:29 IST