Film & TV

For Black History Month, Joaquin Phoenix Wants to Honor Black People 

Joaquin Phoenix backstage at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles, January 19, 2020. (Monica Almeida/Reuters)
And that’s why he accepted an award, scolded the audience, and lauded . . . no black people in particular.

Joaquin Phoenix kicked off Black History Month at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts ceremony by lecturing the London audience on racial discrimination. His acceptance speech for the Best Actor prize was a more interesting performance than the hebephrenia Phoenix displayed in Joker. Rather than hide behind a clown’s mask of madness and social victimization, Phoenix mixed empathy with self-importance.

Perhaps he meant this attempt at commiseration to be better than the usual moral intimidation, yet it revealed the actor’s deep naïveté. What used to be called bleeding-heart liberalism is now conflated with self-righteousness. While under the sway of political fashion, Phoenix, in his sincerity, clarified the oafish middle ground.

Taking his sentimentality beyond the generic hashtag protest, Phoenix displayed a personal, simple-minded credulousness: “I feel very honored and privileged. . . . But I have to say I also feel conflicted because so many of my fellow actors don’t have that same privilege. I think we send a very clear message to people of color that you are not welcome here.”

From that point, Phoenix’s good intentions veered into rogue opportunism. If he understood that the awards were meant to be premised on pointing out excellence, not race, there’d be no need to signal — through mawkish, hands-in-pockets, aw-shucks pity and verbal fumbling — that he was one with progressive dissenters.

Phoenix continued: “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 appreciated for their work.”

But guilt came next: “This is not a self-righteous condemnation, because I am part of the problem. . . . We have to do the hard work to really understand systemic racism.”

Apparently, ordinarily Phoenix is satisfied with the system of narcissistic self-congratulation. “Systemic racism” is just a catchphrase he picked up — like the odious “people of color” — from social media and pandering politicians, without understanding the delimiting ramifications of such terms. It seems that the social issues that Joker pretends to critique have not changed Phoenix’s method of working or thinking, and this ultimately makes his peer-scolding acceptance speech as asinine as Joker itself. (In his previous nihilistic film, You Were Never Really Here, Phoenix showed his tendency to wallow in shame and confusion.)

But Phoenix’s coyness on stage proves instructive. Despite complaining in behalf of “people who have contributed so much to our medium and our industry in ways that we have benefited from,” Phoenix never took the time to appreciate any particular work as extraordinary.

So I will. Actor Tory Kittles in Dragged across Concrete gave the richest characterization of a black actor in the past decade. But because the film didn’t suit the prejudices of mainstream reviewers and elite Hollywood, Kittles and S. Craig Zahler’s remarkable film were ignored during awards season. Kittles’s Slim was a rare black film role that surpassed modish stereotypes (such as Daniel Kaluuya’s character in Queen & Slim); his intelligence and compassion come through the profane street façade (“the young Morgan Freeman we never got to see,” I wrote in my review.)

If film-culture elites casually deny such achievements, it is too late to blame awards-season folly. And it sets an unhelpful tone for Black History Month.

Phoenix’s signoff was not inspiring but rather pathetic: “I think that it is the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuated and benefit from the system of oppression to dismantle it. That’s on us. So, thank you.” He wasn’t being snide; he’s a hippie child who mistakes counterculture clichés (“systemic racism,” “people of color,” “preferential treatment,” “systemic racism”) for heartfelt standards. He doesn’t think through political fashion, and, as an American abroad, he was rude, besides.

A long time ago, in a moral galaxy far, far away, a truly great actor named Marlon Brando refused an award — an Oscar for playing Don Corleone in The Godfather, the peak of Brando’s career — as a show of principle to rebuke Hollywood’s racist practices.

Now misguided celebrities such as Phoenix want a grandstanding Millennial moment — and their awards, too. Phoenix’s BAFTA message doesn’t reflect on Joker’s dangerous message of violent anarchy, but Kittles and Zahler’s film offered the modern miracle of empathy, and that means more than any award-equality speech.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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