Screen

Free The People’s Joker!

The unlikeliest story of the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival – more than Taylor Swift or Harry Styles or the presence of any celebrity – is undoubtedly the path Vera Drew’s The People’s Joker has taken to instant notoriety. The recontextualizing of the events in Todd PhillipsJoker (2019) as a story about queer empowerment is as out of left field as one can, well, expect from a film festival. Even a film festival like TIFF that’s programmed off-the-wall fare from Bong Joon-ho, Takeshi Miike, Park Chan-wook, Guy Maddin, and Bruce LaBruce to name but a few, Vera Drew’s lovingly-crafted tribute and takedown of the Batman myth stands out as one of the oddest.  

And that’s before you consider the unusually tragic circumstances that led the world to talk about The People’s Joker, wholly separate from the movie’s story or even it’s content, really. When Drew received a communication from Warner Brothers, owner of the Batman rights, it threatened further showings of the film and ultimately led to Drew pulling The People’s Joker from TIFF, as well as future festival screenings including a run at this week’s Fantastic Fest. It’s all so emblematic of the anti-establishment bent of the movie itself that you’d think it was a publicity stunt. That is, unless you were one of the lucky few at the Royal Alexandra Theatre at 11:59pm on September 13, 2022. 

I was one of those privileged few, and the ‘lost’ screening of The People’s Joker was one of those one-of-a-kind film festival moments that have kept me coming back to TIFF for twenty years. The image of a teary-eyed (somewhat enhanced by her Joker makeup) Vera Drew, watching her movie that was stitched together by sheer will, being screened at the oldest continuously-operating theatre in North America, is inspiring on many levels. A tiny, personal movie about a marginalized person with only one screening that managed to capture the hearts and imagination of thousands of people, many of which weren’t even present to see it but were entranced by the very idea of it. It’s a testament to the power of film, and perhaps an even more powerful one than Steven Spielberg offered at TIFF with The Fabelmans, which walked away with the audience-voted People’s Choice Award and is probably going to get an Oscar, whatever that’s worth. To a lesser extent, the Streisand Effect of Drew’s film earned it, in my opinion, much more attention in it’s cancellation than it would have gotten had the rake-stepping executives at Warner Brothers just left it well enough alone. 

TIFF programmer Peter Kuplowsky presents Vera Drew, Nathan Faustyn, and co-writer Bri LeRose of The People’s Joker at the only screening of the movie (as of this writing)

As far as the movie itself, The People’s Joker is a shriekingly funny, sometimes heartbreaking, incisive journey of a young trans woman, establishing and accepting her own identity, sparked by watching Batman Forever (1995) and identifying with Nicole Kidman’s Chase Meridian. Leaving the small town and the mother that never accepted her, Drew’s “Joker The Harlequin” packs it up and moves to Gotham to join the cast of a barely-disguised stand-in for Saturday Night Live, complete with an actual Lorne Michaels pulling the strings. But on her rejection from that group, Joker ends up finding her truth with a cast of misfits, including lazy standup The Penguin (an often scene-stealing Nathan Faustyn), and a romantic partner (Kane Distler) who adopts Jared Leto’s problematic take on Joker*. All the while, the fascistic, ever-present eye of Batman and Wayne Enterprises rules over Gotham, seeking out and eradicating any trace of non-sanctioned fun or comedy within its midst. 

Fans have rallied behind The People’s Joker, and it’s more than a little touching.

If any of this sounds confusing, that’s because The People’s Joker is densely packed, almost criminally so, with references, parodies, and jabs at the Batman universe and characters, as well as problematic tropes like the relationship between Batman and Harley Quinn. It also shoots on the culture of stand-up comedy, skewering Bill Cosby, Louis CK, and others in the process. Nearly every foreground or background shot or sequence or character has layers of meaning, whether it’s taking down the DC Comics establishment, mapping out Vera Drew’s journey towards accepting her trans identity, or taking on the gatekeeping boys club of the comedy circuit. It’s ambitious in all the right ways, and chaotic in many of those same ways. It embodies a DIY spirit, the work of a collaboration between friends that you can’t help but root for.

The People’s Joker feels perfectly aligned with many of the themes of this year’s festival, the first fully in-person festival in two years due to ~the state of the world~. Among the 25ish movies I saw over the ten days, I’ve noticed a strong undercurrent of class warfare, blowing past mere skepticism to an even healthier antagonism of the super-rich, privileged, and powerful. Daniel Goldhaber’s How To Blow Up A Pipeline, which (as it’s title implies) follows a group of activists, deeply affected by the petrochemical industry, coming together to commit violent sabotage. Ruben Ostlund’s cruise ship-set Triangle of Sadness, which joins Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite as a Palme D’Or winner at Cannes and with which it shares some anti-capitalist DNA, drowns arms-peddling elites, conceited influencers, and Margaret Thatcher quip-spouting bigots in a sea of their own vomit, diarrhea, and then actually drowns some of them in the ocean. Mark Mylod’s The Menu skewers a group of rich and powerful celebrities, food snobs, and venture capital dingbats in a symphony of excess, a tasting menu crafted explicitly to destroy their lives and bring them down to earth. All of these films, like The People’s Joker, bring underdog characters (the activists in How To Blow Up A Pipeline, the service staff on the cruise ship in Triangle of Sadness, and a couple of key figures in The Menu that would constitute a spoiler) to the forefront as they struggle against class and cultural hegemony. The distinction with Drew’s movie, of course, is that this struggle is playing out outside of the content of the movie itself and is affecting the ability for an audience to even find The People’s Joker. Which is a problem that none of the other movies I’ve listed will have. Once again, it’s all Batman’s fault.

Vera Drew in The People’s Joker

The People’s Joker is the exact kind of movie we need right now. It’s a lovingly-crafted rendition of one of our most enduring and sometimes-beloved modern myths into a hyper-personal, empowering coming out story and a middle finger to the toxic worlds of comedy, superhero fandom, and the big-money calculus of movie studio filmmaking that runs against artistic freedom at every turn. Both its content and the treatment of the film by those that gatekeep our mythology are mirrored in an intriguing way, cruel as it may be that only a few got to see it. But fear not, citizens of Gotham and Gotham-equivalents around the world, because the sheer power of Drew’s film, film in general, and the public appetite for the removal of the barriers–corporate and otherwise–holding back art will get The People’s Joker in front of your eyes, somehow and someway.

*Maybe the latter is a red flag, who can say?

~~~

Sachin Hingoo has been issued a cease and desist letter and has been pulled from this and future posts.  [I just suggested you needed to stop writing such good posts because you were making me look bad, Sachin. ~ The Editor.]

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