Boots Riley Explains Why ‘Joker’ Isn’t a Radical Comic Book Movie

At a recent SFFILM event, Riley told IndieWire about how the DC movie supports the same myth as "The Dark Knight Rises": "Rebellion is crazy."
Boots Riley
Roots Riley at the SFFILM awards event
SFFILM/Tommy Lau

Hip-hop artist-turned-director Boots Riley broke out onto the film scene last year with “Sorry to Bother You,” a politically charged Sundance sensation that proved a summer box-office sleeper in 2018. While Riley has yet to set a follow-up film project, he has remained a continually outspoken cinephile, as evidenced by his remarks about Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” over the summer.

At the recent SFFILM awards event in San Francisco, Riley was on hand to present the Kanbar Award for Storytelling to “The Farewell” director Lulu Wang. Riley, who received that same prize from the San Francisco nonprofit last year, took a moment prior to the ceremony to speak with IndieWire about the year in film. Regarding “Joker,” Riley suggested that Todd Phillips’ controversial DC origin story, despite appearing to flout superhero-movie conventions, perpetuates the same fallacy as “The Dark Knight” and other superhero-film forbears — the impoverished and mentally ill are there by their own hands, and not because of the indifference of the One Percent.

“Excellent performances and you know, I love Joaquin Phoenix and hope to work with him,” Riley said. “But basically it wasn’t flipping the superhero story on its head; it was doing the same exact thing that they all do, which is ‘rebellion is crazy.’ That’s what they told you, that these people are rebelling and they have no real reason to.”

The narrative carrying “Joker” all season is that the gritty, stripped-down, 1980s-set New York version of the story of Batman’s psychologically mangled nemesis — whose socioeconomic position denies him access to mental health care — is not like those other superhero movies. But as far as Riley’s concerned, this isn’t the case.

“That’s the same thing that ‘The Dark Knight’ tried to tell us. You know, ‘The Dark Knight,’ they made it more like Occupy after Occupy happened because they wanted to make this statement,” Riley said. He’s referring to the sociopolitical uprising sprung out of unrest over economic inequality in 2011, a jolting grassroots movement that influenced the portrayal of Bane (Tom Hardy) and his acolytes in Christopher Nolan’s 2012 “The Dark Knight Rises.”

“The truth is that these superhero movies are cop movies, and cop stories, cop shows, and cop movies are all about saying one thing — that those in poverty are there because they made the wrong choices, that the impoverished are in poverty because of their own mistakes and their own shortcomings, and it has nothing to do with the system,” Riley said.

He added, “The ‘Joker’ movie reinforces that by telling you, not only are these folks there because of who they are, [but that] the poor folks are stupid and when they rebel, it’s because they’re angry, and actually, rich people had nothing to do with them being poor. In actuality, those that are rich got rich off of exploiting the workers.”

Oakland resident Riley has delivered political missives at SFFILM events before, and he provided the State of Cinema Address at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival in 2019. As announced in January 2019, Riley is currently re-teaming with “Sorry to Both You” studio Annapurna Pictures on a sophomore feature project.

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