Joaquin Phoenix Discusses Racism In Hollywood

by Yesha Callahan

I’ve always been a fan of Joaquin Phoenix and his eccentricities. From his roles in movies like Walk The Line, where he portrayed Johnny Cash, and his “mockumentary” I’m Still Here, he’s established himself as an actor that’s willing to take risks.

In a recent interview with black film critic, Elvis Mitchell for Interview Magazine, Phoenix discussed everything from his upcoming films, his appreciation of the hip hop group Black Moon, to volunteering with his parent’s mentoring program with inner-city kids, and racism in Hollywood. As one that’s not known to bite his tongue, Phoenix quickly jumped into the problem with white people in Hollywood. They’re just oblivious and disconnected.

PHOENIX: Yeah. So I don’t experience any of that. I mean, dude, how can you work in film and still see the overt racism that exists in film and not just be furious all the time?
MITCHELL: You know what? As a black person, you see so much racism. Films are no different than the government, politics—it’s everywhere. It’s not exclusively film. It’s infuriating to see it in film. But my being in film changes things.

PHOENIX: Yeah, but there’s all of this horrible racism that white people don’t even recognize. Did you see Jumping the Broom?
MITCHELL: I’m a black person. Of course I saw it.

PHOENIX: I feel like all white people have to see the film just because I’ve never seen a movie in which most of the white characters in the movie were just working. It was fucking great. It was almost comical. There was a scene during the wedding reception, and there are, like, eight white people just carrying stuff. The main white character with some dialogue was the ditzy, stupid assistant. I enjoyed it so much because you never see that. But that’s something that I think white people don’t notice. They don’t notice that the fourth character is black and that’s what it always is. It’s always happening. It’s just the assumption that, “Well, that’s just a representation of life.”

MITCHELL: But you know what’s also underneath that? A lot of the time you see all this ambition from these black actors and it’s just pouring off the screen. Because they don’t often get a chance to work, and when they do, they don’t usually get a chance to work with other black people. You can just see the pleasure of those actors. I went to see that movie with my sisters and you could see the crowd levitating. People wonder why black kids don’t go to the movies. It’s because, what’s the point? If you don’t see yourself, then why would you go?
PHOENIX: You know, I got this script a while ago for this thing. It was kind of like an action movie, and it definitely dealt with race in a big way. But then it didn’t. Without getting into specifics . . .

MITCHELL: Did the film get made?
PHOENIX: Oh, it got made. But you could not believe that this thing actually got made, because it seemed like it was from the 1940s or something. It’s got this black character in it who was literally always being saved by the white dude because he was, like, cowering in the corner. So I went in and met the director and producer and I said, “You guys realize that your only black character is this guy, and it’s like the most clichéd thing we’ve seen in movies forever.” And they were like, “What do you mean?” And I was like, “You mean you’re not even aware of it?” They didn’t even realize what they were doing. So I said, “Look, I’ll give them a read if the black character doesn’t get killed and is going to make it into the sequel. They have to put him in their sequel, the black character.” So I spoke to the writer and was like, “Dude, be a hero. When this movie comes out in the summertime, give black kids a character they can see themselves in.” But it just didn’t occur to them, and I realized what a battle it is when people aren’t even aware of what they’re doing. I know what that battle is. I’ve done battles like that before, and you lose. So I didn’t do the movie . . . They did keep the black character alive, though. He’s in the sequel-at least, that’s what I’ve heard.

MITCHELL: Was it a successful movie?
PHOENIX: I don’t think it’s come out yet. It’s one of those big action movies.

Although a lot of people in Hollywood may find Phoenix’s eccentricities weird and off putting, it seems as though he’s more in touch with what’s going on than he’d lead people to believe. 

  • Val

    I don’t agree with him that White filmmakers don’t realize they are writing racially stereotypical parts for Black actors. I think they know but will play dumb if someone calls them on it.

  • Nikster

    I disagree. I think white people are often unaware of their privilege. In some cases, they are being overtly racist but I can believe that on many occasions they have no idea that a character they created would be seen in a problematic way from the perspective on an African American. W/o the input of a person of color or a white person that is aware of privilege a bunch of white people can sit in a room (a la groupthink) and come up with something that makes the Black characters or people of color seem inferior and not know it. Point of view and perspective is important in those spaces. We need to have more people of color (or whites like Phoenix) in those spaces or simply producing their own programs like Issa Rae to show the possibilities of an African Americans in the media.

  • Val


    I understand your point, and I’m sure it happens like that sometimes. But, racism and stereotypes have been around for a long time in film. And we, African Americans, have been pointing them out and complaining about them for a longtime.

    On top of that film characters are analyzed and vetted in all sorts of ways prior to filming. Also, most filmmakers have some sort of formal training in film-making which would include studying character development and the history of race in film. I’m pretty sure most filmmakers have seen the film, “Birth of a Nation”. It would be impossible to see that film and not have a historical understanding of racial stereotypes in film and media.

    So, as I said, I think most filmmakers know exactly what they’re doing when they include stereotypical characters.

  • nettie

    I completely agree. In college, I was once one of two black people and the only woman in a screenwriting class. You would not believe some of the plot lines and portrayals that involved women these guys came up with. The same can be said of gay characters or disabled characters. Without someone in touch with the particular community there is a lack of authenticity and more often than not radically stereotypical characters.

  • KitKat

    What makes me uncomfortable is that he(his whiteness) will now add an air of legitimacy to a topic minorities have been speaking about since Hattie McDaniel and Anna Mae Wong. However it seems if you want a white people to listen/learn about racism, it needs to come from another white person.

  • http://clutchmagazine blcknnblv

    As long as we are ok with white Christians using our black kids for charity they might think they are doing us a favor by letting us play in their movies

  • KitKat

    correction: Anna May Wong.

  • Ms. Information

    White people have an unawareness that is overtly natural…when they do certain things (some of them) they sincerely don’t know what the issue is. I am guessing it is because they never have to consider us. We are not a threat, we are not important to them.

  • nona

    Thank goodness we have this white man to say what black people have been saying FOREVER. /sarcasm

  • ?!?

    Yes. Everytime you see some feel good movie with white and black people, think about the role of the black person. I saw The Blind Side. It was a pretty good movie, and I thought Sandra Bullock performed well, but… was a po’ black boy who had a po’ black momma who needed a white savior. Look at The Help. Even though the black people dealt with crap, there was a white woman that helped them in the end. The whole Kony incident was with po’ black folks needing a white savior. Radio.

    And this is why I don’t want to see myself as a victim. This is why I dislike when black folks go into things viewing themselves as victims. It makes black folks look as if they are too pathetic, childish, or ignorant to help themselves. It’s a common role for black people in movies to be the victim and for some savior to come show how post-racial everything is. And everyone always feels bad for the victim, so it doesn’t seem so bad and stereotypical as casting a black man as a drug dealer who beats old ladies or a black woman as a sassy neck rolling employee at the DMV who also happens to overweight. While movies like The Blind Side are touching, I just don’t like that this is a common theme.

    I think white people don’t understand how much variety of characters they have in the entertainment industry. There is that stereotype about blondes being dumb and ditzy, but turn on the TV. You can see a blonde as a doctor on Grey’s Anatomy. You can see a blonde as a detective on The Closer. You can see a blonde being the traditional Wife on Mad Men. You can see a blonde as a kick butt lawyer on Law and Order SVU. You can see a blonde being domineering on Everybody Loves Raymond. You can see a blonde being a typical catty teen on Glee. And you can see a stereotypically ditzy blonde hanging out with nerds on The Big Bang Theory.

    There is not even half as much variety in the characters for black people. It’s just stereotype after stereotype. As a black woman, I know that a black female character will most likely be educated but fat and either sweet or overbearing(Bailey from Grey’s Anatomy), beautiful and fit but ignorant and attitudinal (Tara on True Blood), or beautiful and educated but domineering(Sanaa Lathan Tyler Perry’s movie). That’s about as much variety as we have. I forgot we can be the victim though. If a black woman is sweet and fit and pretty then she probably has gotten beat up or is about to get beat up. For black men it’s about the same. At least they have Will Smith, Denzel, and Morgan Freeman who can get roles outside of stereotypes sometimes.

    What’s also crazy is that black writers do these same played out stereotypes as well. Tyler Perry combines all 4 of those common roles for black women in one movie sometimes. Why did I get married had Jill Scott as educated and fat but sweet. Tasha Mack was fit but ignorant and attitudinal. Janet Jackson was beautiful and educated but domineering.

  • Lady P

    “Yes. Everytime you see some feel good movie with white and black people, think about the role of the black person. I saw The Blind Side. It was a pretty good movie, and I thought Sandra Bullock performed well, but… was a po’ black boy who had a po’ black momma who needed a white savior.”

    Until I read your comment, I thought I was the only person with those same sentiments. I didn’t care for this movie because of the same Hollywood tactics of making “it takes a white person to save your day” type of movies. We had an era of movies that consisted of guns and the violence; I wasn’t a fan of those. Now with our “comedy” movies, they are mostly embarrassing. One in particular,, I often think of is “A Death at a Funeral”—I couldn’t finish watching this movie. It was very embarrassing in my opinion. Black writers in some instances do not make the negative stereotypes any better, a balance is lacking. I do agree we need more actors/actress such as Phoenix to help open Hollywood’s eyes towards racism. It is left up to us to produce the good movies because I double more Phoenixes will come forward. On the other hand, imagery has a great, long-lasting impact on viewers. Hollywood is aware of the impact of powerful roles that could be performed by black actors/actress.

    And I did not like the Help.

    Your comment was very well written. I enjoyed reading it. Great job!

  • ChillyRoad


    How important do you think it is for writers, directors, etc to conform to what their audience is comfortable with? Could that also be a motivation behind many images we see in the media? I would have assumed that people write for other people like them. I would, without thinking about it, maybe write for a young black female audience. I would write about how I thought my audience viewed the world.

    I guess it would be a real talent to write with someone completely different from you in mind.

  • Kamikak

    I’m happy you said this. Although I appreciate his openness, the fact that he’s white and the “oh so enlightened one” when it comes to racial issues bothers me. How is it that he gets it but the people he keeps company with doesn’t.

    Maybe it’s a reflection of my own heart, but it never rings genuine to me when white people seem to “get” black people and our issues.

  • Wills

    ….a complete non-issue…

  • S.

    Some of these comments are confusing…

    What is the point at getting mad at White people for not understanding/recognizing/calling out racism only to turn around and get mad when they do?!???

    I applaud Mr. Phoenix for having enough guts and passion for talking about this when he could ignore it. Joaquin Phoenix is a prime example of a White person who is showing that they are willing to give up their privilege for the sake of equality

    I would like to think that I would be like Joaquin if I happened to be born White

  • Mr Anthropomorphism

    Mr Phoenix is simply expressing his disgust resulting from some form of ‘awakening’ that he has had earlier in his life.

    He is now just a normal human being, as apposed to an imperial white person who always never meant to ‘offend’ and is ‘shocked’ and ‘horrified’ that as a direct result of their sayings or actions they have offended somebody!!

  • Shar

    I was thinking the exact same thing. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  • Tonton Michel

    “Did you see Jumping the Broom?
    MITCHELL: I’m a black person. Of course I saw it.”

    Say what?

  • camille

    The proof that white people are oblivious is in Joaquin’s example of “Jumping the Broom,” a film with all kinds of backwardsness and themes of self-hatred, as an example of progress

  • camille

    The proof that white people are clueless is that he mentions a movie with themes of self-hatred as an example of progress

  • camille

    Please explain

  • camille

    Death at a Funeral was a remake of a movie with an all white cast including Peter Dinklage, the little person. I don’t see how it was an affront to Black film as long as Tyler Perry is allowed to thrive

  • bk chick

    Yes I peeped that too…glad you pointed it out

  • SC

    so when you say “educated but fat,” you mean “it’s cool that she’s educated, but dammit, she’s fat?” um… yeah.

    i like some nuance to my characters of color. complex characters are sometimes *gasp* fat. sometimes people are even fit AND fat, or like beautiful, fit AND fat. omgz.

  • SC

    getting mad at a society that appreciates the voices of white folks more than people of color is pretty valid i think. oh reallllyyy? you noticed racism? nooiiice. any white actor SHOULD notice racism in hollywood, you shouldn’t necessary get cookies for it.

  • EntertainMe

    I’m Black and never saw it…I hated his answer to that question.

  • djblackbetty

    True, it’s a shame how Phoenix’s statements are likely to be more legitimized considering his race, but I applaud any public figure who’s willing to bring race to the forefront of discussion. Because if you really think about it, it’s not that often. Particularly, where white males are concerned.

    If he’s talking, maybe it’ll lead another white person to consider the racial dynamics in Hollywood (and beyond), and perhaps they’ll start talking themselves. We cannot bear this cross alone… everyone needs to be apart of the conversation, not just minorities.

  • djblackbetty

    In an ideal situation, yes, every white actor should notice racism in Hollywood…. but obviously that’s not the case. What’s is point in chastising the man? He’s only telling the truth.

    Besides, remaining silent to the cause (regardless of your race) is never going to change anything.

  • ?!?

    @SC – Black women on TV are just about always nuanced and fat. It’s the mammy stereotype. I’m saying I don’t like stereotypical black characters.

    You see it as nuance. I see it as stereoyping and mocking.

  • SC

    Well personally I’m not chastising him. I just choose not to legitimize his voice over those of people of color. Like when actors of color say really deep and profound things about racism in Hollywood, I admire that. But when a white actor says kind of obvious things about racism in Hollywood (i.e. “there is racism in Hollywood), I don’t give him more props than actors of color. I’m glad that he might be spreading the word to white folks who only listen to white folks. But I’m not white and I don’t need the word spread to me, so my response is “meh, that’s cool.”

  • SC

    Fat is not a nuance. I’m not saying I see fatness as being what makes a character complex. :/ Fatness also does not prevent nuance. Complexity/nuance is the antithesis of stereotyping. There’s no such thing as a nuanced mammy stereotype…because a nuanced person is more than just a one dimensional asexual caretaker. It’s not like fatness makes a character simplistic and stereotypical.

    Anyway, here’s someone who puts it better than me:

  • ?!?

    @SC – Black women on network television shows are usually overweight. This is not a coincidence. Hollywood likes casting overweight black women. It screams over and over that we can’t compete that we don’t take care of ourselves that we are less desirable than others. If that’s not what you see, good. But that is the underlying message behind it. Overweight white women can barely get roles, but overweight black women are just as if not more sought after as thin black actresses. Of all the black women with major roles on network TV that I can think of, there is Bailey on Grey’s Anatomy. There’s Amber Riley on Glee. There is the comedian on Parks and Recreation, Joy Bryant on some show, and Kerry Washington on Scandal, and Vanessa Williams. That’s a 1:1. ratio. There may be way more women that I’m missing, but white women are not 1:1 like that. I wonder why especially considering they have an obesity problem too.

    In any other country with another entertainment industry, I would agree that fatness does not make a character stereotypical, but in America, there is a stereotype of black women being fat. I wrote about this on another article on this site, but this is just Hollywood mocking us and putting white women on a pedestal.

  • cheeky

    “Themes of self-hatred”? JUMPING THE BROOM was a fun family film with non-stereotypical roles—it was also written,directed and produced by a black couple (the Akils.) I really enjoyed it, and don’t get where you got this “theme of self-hatred” out of it.

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