Joker, a new movie starring Joaquin Phoenix, isn't set for official release until October 4, but it has already generated plenty of buzz — though the latest rumblings challenge the maxim that there's no such thing as bad publicity.
Specifically, five people with connections to the July 2012 Aurora theater shooting — including Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, whose daughter, Jessica Ghawi, was one of the massacre's twelve fatalities — have written an open letter to Warner Bros., the studio behind the film, expressing concern about the content and calling on action to address the scourge of gun violence across the country.
The result is a mingling of pain and politics that speaks powerfully to our present national moment.
In addition to Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, the letter was signed by Tina Coon, whose son witnessed the shooting; Theresa Hoover, mother of victim A.J. Boik; and Heather Dearman, cousin of Ashley Moser, whose six-year-old daughter, Veronica Moser-Sullivan, was the youngest person to die in the attack. Ashley Moser herself was grievously wounded and suffered a miscarriage as a result of her injuries.
The connection between the Joker and the theater shooting, which took place during a screening of the Batman flick The Dark Knight Returns, is undeniable yet infused with misinformation. In the hours after word of the slayings reached the public, ABC News reported that the shooter had identified himself as the character and dyed his hair orange to resemble him, even though the Joker's hair is traditionally green. Subsequent investigation offered no evidence that this was actually true, but the impression lingered, much like the bogus notion that the Columbine killers had an obsession with Marilyn Manson. (They were actually more into Rammstein.)
In the letter, which is dated September 23 but wasn't distributed until a day later, the five signatories point out that "when we learned that Warner Bros. was releasing a movie called Joker that presents the character as a protagonist with a sympathetic origin story, it gave us pause."
However, they quickly add that they're not promoting a boycott. "We want to be clear that we support your right to free speech and free expression," they emphasize. "But as anyone who has ever seen a comic-book movie can tell you: with great power comes great responsibility. That's why we're calling on you to use your massive platform and influence to join us in our fight to build safer communities with fewer guns." (The bold print is in the original letter, on view below.)
This approach is very much in keeping with the philosophy espoused by Ghawi's parents. In April 2018, Sandy and Lonnie Phillips talked to Westword about a campaign inspired by the movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, involving billboards mounted in the Congressional districts of representatives who took big money from the National Rifle Association, including Mike Coffman, who was defeated for re-election by Jason Crow last November.
"Since Parkland, there's been a national outcry," Lonnie told us, "and people are talking about the kinds of things we've been trying to accomplish. Since the day our daughter was killed, we've called for a ban on assault weapons. And we also want universal background checks on the sale of all guns — not just AR-15s and weapons like that. And we want victims of gun violence to be able to sue gun manufacturers and people who we believe were liable for these deaths."
The Joker letter asks Warner Bros. to end political contributions to candidates and officials who take money from the NRA. The studio doesn't promise to do so in its reply to the missive (shared below), but it stresses that "our parent company joined other business leaders to call on policymakers to enact bi-partisan legislation to address this epidemic" while at the same time defending storytelling that provokes "difficult conversations around complex issues."
Lonnie and Sandy also spoke to us from the scene of the May 2018 assault on a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, emphasizing the incredibly tough road that mass shooting survivors and loved ones of victims must travel. But entire communities also feel trauma in the wake of such events, and the effects never go away. Moreover, pop culture frequently triggers such emotions, intentionally or not.
An example took place at last year's Denver Film Festival during a screening of Vox Lux, a Natalie Portman vehicle that kicks off with a school-shooting scene obviously inspired by Columbine. (My daughter, who grew up in the Columbine area and is now a teacher, was instantly triggered and had to leave the theater — and she wasn't the only one.) Afterward, we argued that the festival should have been more explicit about this story element in its description of the flick. Then-fest director Andrew Rodgers reacted to the suggestion with high dudgeon, hinting that the idea was tantamount to censorship. But when the film opened to the general public at the Sie FilmCenter a few weeks later, it was accompanied by the very sort of description for which we'd advocated.
By the way, Vox Lux, a pretentious slab of twaddle that nonetheless earned some respectable reviews, proved to be a box-office catastrophe, grossing around $727,000, and Rodgers resigned as festival director in April.
The theater where the Aurora shooting took place seven years ago — once the Aurora Century 16, it's now known as Century Aurora — reportedly won't be screening Joker when it opens early next month. But killer-clown fans shouldn't despair: Among its current offerings is IT Chapter Two.
Continue to see the trailer for Joker, followed by the letter and the studio reply.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Ann Samoff — CEO
40000 Warner Blvd.
Burbank, CA 91522
Dear Ann Samoff,
We are the family members and friends of the 12 people killed at the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises on July 20, 2012. This tragic event, perpetrated by a socially isolated individual who felt "wronged" by society has changed the course of our lives.
As a result, we have committed ourselves to ensuring that no other family ever has to go through the absolute hell we have experienced and the pain we continue to live with. Trust us, it does not go away.
When we learned that Warner Bros. was releasing a movie called Joker that presents the character as a protagonist with a sympathetic origin story, it gave us pause.
We want to be clear that we support your right to free speech and free expression. But as anyone who has ever seen a comic-book movie can tell you: with great power comes great responsibility. That's why we're calling on you to use your massive platform and influence to join us in our fight to build safer communities with fewer guns.
Over the last several weeks, large American employers from Walmart to CVS have announced that they are going to lean into gun safety. We are calling on you to be a part of the growing chorus of corporate leaders who understand that they have a social responsibility to keep us all safe.
Specifically, we're asking you to do the following:
• End political contributions to candidates who take money from the NRA and vote against gun reform. These lawmakers are literally putting your customers and employees in danger.
• Use your political clout and leverage in Congress to actively lobby for gun reform. Keeping everyone safe should be a top corporate priority for Warner Brothers.
• Help fund survivor funds and gun violence intervention programs to help survivors of gun violence and to reduce every-day gun violence in the communities you serve.
Since the federal government has failed to pass reforms that raise the standard for gun ownership in America, large corporations like Warner Brothers have a responsibility to act. We certainly hope that you do.
Gun violence in our society is a critical issue, and we extend our deepest sympathy to all victims and families impacted by these tragedies. Our company has a long history of donating to victims of violence, including Aurora, and in recent weeks, our parent company joined other business leaders to call on policymakers to enact bi-partisan legislation to address this epidemic. At the same time, Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues. Make no mistake: neither the fiction character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.