Obama as the Joker: Racial Fear’s Ugly Face

Philip Kennicott, Washington Post, Aug. 6, 2009

Between Jack Nicholson’s 1989 portrayal of the Joker in “Batman” and Heath Ledger’s 2008 characterization in “The Dark Knight,” something sinister happened to the villain’s iconic makeup. What had been a mask, with the clearly delineated lines of a carnival character, became simply war paint, and not very well applied.

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It is the latter makeup job that has been superimposed over the face of President Obama in an anonymous Los Angeles poster campaign that is now the talk of the blogosphere, the airwaves and the 24/7 hermeneutical speculations of cable television. The image, which appears above the word “socialism,” delights and distresses people roughly on the lines of the usual political cleavage, with wide agreement that the as-yet-unrevealed artist certainly intends it to be disrespectful. But there is little consensus about whether it is effective as political messagemaking.

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“Unpredictable and dangerous.”

Comparisons to Shepard Fairey’s Obama posters, which rendered the president’s face a boldly contrasted palette of red and blue above the blunt message “hope,” generally tend to favor Fairey’s artistry. The exhausted icon of last year’s political campaign, now falling off bumpers and fading on T-shirts, had both a subtlety the current poster lacks and a simplicity that it desperately needs. Fairey’s image included a clever visual play on red- and blue-state political values (a windmill rendered in red, a tank and dollar sign sketched in blue), but it required only one step of mental grammar: Obama is hope.

The new Obama poster has two basic thrusts. Obama is a socialist, or a crypto-socialist. And Obama is somehow like the Joker, unpredictable and dangerous. But joining these two messages together yields more questions and contradictions than good poster art can sustain.

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So why the anonymity? Perhaps because the poster is ultimately a racially charged image. By using the “urban” makeup of the Heath Ledger Joker, instead of the urbane makeup of the Jack Nicholson character, the poster connects Obama to something many of his detractors fear but can’t openly discuss. He is black and he is identified with the inner city, a source of political instability in the 1960s and ’70s, and a lingering bogeyman in political consciousness despite falling crime rates.

The Joker’s makeup in “Dark Knight”–the latest film in a long franchise that dramatizes fear of the urban world–emphasized the wounded nature of the villain, the sense that he was both a product and source of violence. Although Ledger was white, and the Joker is white, this equation of the wounded and the wounding mirrors basic racial typology in America. Urban blacks–the thinking goes–don’t just live in dangerous neighborhoods, they carry that danger with them like a virus. Scientific studies, which demonstrate the social consequences of living in neighborhoods with high rates of crime, get processed and misinterpreted in the popular unconscious, underscoring the idea. Violence breeds violence.

It is an ugly idea, operating covertly in that gray area that is always supposed to be opened up to honest examination whenever America has one of its “we need to talk this through” episodes. But it lingers, unspoken but powerful, leaving all too many people with the sense that exposure to crime creates an ineluctable propensity to crime.

Superimpose that idea, through the Joker’s makeup, onto Obama’s face, and you have subtly coded, highly effective racial and political argument. Forget socialism, this poster is another attempt to accomplish an association between Obama and the unpredictable, seeming danger of urban life. It is another effort to establish what failed to jell in the debate about Obama’s association with Chicago radical William Ayers and the controversy over the racially charged sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Obama, like the Joker and like the racial stereotype of the black man, carries within him an unknowable, volatile and dangerous marker of urban violence, which could erupt at any time. The charge of socialism is secondary to the basic message that Obama can’t be trusted, not because he is a politician, but because he’s black.

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