Jojo Rabbit – The Nazi Comedy That Struck A Chord by Sidestepping Modern Racism
When asked why he chose to play Adolf Hitler in his WW2 comedy, Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi’s response was documented far and wide in a multitude of media outlets – “what better fuck you to that guy?” Referring to how he self-identifies as a “Polynesian Jew”.
And he’s not wrong. That is a great way to tarnish one of the evillest men to come out of Europe. But that sentence in itself brings up another point. He already is one of the most abhorrent characters in history, and that’s generally accepted around the world. Which leads you to ask the question – is another film revealing the severe inhumanity of the Nazi party really what we need in modern society? Especially when there are so many more prescient issues also being discussed.
This article will delve into how a film like Jojo Rabbit portrays race issues and the disparity between that and other examples of nuanced modern racism.
The Overt and the Nuanced
Leaving larger examples of racial tensions, like the Unite to Right rally in Charlottesville, to one side, many matters of racism in modern life are much more nuanced than the overtness of the Nazi doctrine of ethnic cleansing.
The violence of the American Civil Rights Movement, the despicable actions of the Klu Klax Klan, the widespread hate crimes committed by the National Front in the UK – these are all easily condemnable acts of racial hatred that don’t need great analysis for people to be on the same page. But, the discourse is different now. Acts like these still happen, albeit on a smaller scale, but it’s when seemingly “subtler” race issues are highlighted that the divide of our current culture becomes most apparent.
A large number of white people feel like after, for want of a better word, “solving” these overt acts of racism – the battle is over. To this group of white people, the fact that any minorities could possibly complain about things as trivial as the Oscars having a 92% white membership when just 30 years ago they were being attacked on the streets – is completely baffling. But in a way, that’s exactly why we can see these more nuanced takes on hatred. Now, the large swathes of racial attacks have mostly subsided – we’re left to see more subtle examples that were previously ignored.
Many people call these acts ‘everyday racism’ – views and actions that are institutionalised or deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche. Think of Donald Trump using the phrase “go back where you came from.” A line which has endless amounts of emotional baggage for any person of colour who has migrated to another country.
The line itself stems from the longer version of the phrase – “if you don’t like it here, then why don’t you go back where you came from?” Defenders of this sentiment label it purely as patriotic and/or nationalistic, stating it’s more of a comment on how their country runs rather than any comment on migrants living in that very same country. But this language isn’t that anymore, it’s been weaponised.
This phrase, and many others like it, have been used in conjunction with numerous acts of racism and hate crimes, thus changing its impact. And for a person in the public eye, let alone in the highest office of the “free world”, to use it so casually – it basically sanctions his followers to do the same.
Even though it’s quite a broad version of it, Trump using this language is highly codified. He doesn’t actually say anything racist, but it’s implied because of the history of both his views and the phrase.
Stepping away from codified language for a second, another complicated part of modern racism is humour.
Many people still defend certain views or attitudes under the premise of comedy. Think of Boris Johnson referring to Muslim women as letterboxes, with thousands of people rushing to protect his right to make a “joke”.
One such person being Rowan Atkinson, the actor behind Mr Bean. Atkinson said.
“As a lifelong beneficiary of the freedom to make jokes about religion, I do think that Boris Johnson’s joke about wearers of the burka resembling letterboxes is a pretty good one. All jokes about religion cause offence, so it’s pointless apologising for them. You should really only apologise for a bad joke. On that basis, no apology is required.”
Without taking any approach of dissecting what he actually said, the sentiment of his response basically translates to “if it’s funny, it’s fine”. But isn’t comedy subjective? And shouldn’t the people who the joke is aimed at be the ones to decide whether it’s funny?
Words are a much harder thing to overtly persecute than actions. They’re slippery, people can wriggle out of them, and as Kendall Roy proclaims on Succession, “words are nothing, just complicated airflow.”
Culture of Division
As recent elections, referendums, and re-elections have shown us – modern society is an incredibly divided one. Just look at another recent release, The Hunt, for more evidence. And that division in modern life is best represented when it comes to matters of racism, and indeed, what is even deemed as racist.
Racism hasn’t gone away in the 21st century, it’s simply shifted gears. It’s much less obvious in modern society, for every person of colour calling out racial micro-aggressions and highlighting the hypocrisy of white privilege, there are an equal amount of alt-right commentators illustrating the increasingly hazardous plight of the white person.
A perfect recent example of this centres on the recent issue of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle leaving the UK for Canada.
The popular UK breakfast show, This Morning, ran a feature entitled “Is Racism At the Heart of Meghan and Harry’s Departure?” In the segment, Women’s Rights Activist Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu explained that the treatment of Meghan stemmed from “a culture of racism in the United Kingdom”.
At this point, one of the presenters, Philip Schofield, asks the question “what examples do you have?”
To which, Dr Mos-Shogbamimu responds “where have you been the past two years?”
This brief exchange perfectly shows how far apart the two perceived sides of culture are from one another – with neither of them willing to see the other’s point of view. One of them is completely oblivious to what they’re talking about, while the other is so dumbfounded they can’t even muster the energy to list the events.
Is it All Just a Joke?
One incident that Dr Mos-Shogbamimu could have referenced was when British TV personality Danny Baker tweeted a picture of a chimpanzee and claimed it was Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s baby son.
Multiple people from either side of the debate leapt into the discussion of this joke, some to defend, some to condemn. But regardless of your opinion on whether this was a legitimate joke to make, the fact remains, he wasn’t making a similar comparison to Prince William and Kate Middleton’s child.
So, how does Jojo Rabbit fit into all this?
Nominated for six Academy Awards this year, a total which is exactly six times more than any of Waititi’s previous feature films – that all share a light-hearted tone and whimsical humour. It’s this same climate of a divided society that makes Jojo Rabbit’s success unsurprising.
Regardless of what side of the fence you sit on, everyone can agree that overt racism and bigotry is bad – and that’s why everyone can get behind a film like Jojo Rabbit. The views shared in the movie are so outrageous and demonic that no one in their right mind could even start to defend them.
Through A Child’s Eyes
Not content with purely portraying adult Nazis with these wildly outrageous views, the movie actually has the lead character of Jojo, a 10-year-old in the Hitler Youth, share some of the most abhorrent views. Mentioning that Jews have horns, drawing them as fantastical creatures, and referring to them as non-human.
Hearing these outlandish words from a child does two things simultaneously, firstly, it makes them sound even more ridiculous. And secondly, it exposes a key way of how people attain views in the first place – being taught them.
When it comes to these outdated views on race, Jojo’s opinions in the movie are completely sculpted by those around him. Firstly, by the Nazis he so idolises. And then secondly, by the Jewish girl his mother is harbouring in their house.
His default views are based completely on the words of others, believing everything he’s told – as many students with no contrasting evidence would do. But as he actually accrues some life experience for himself, namely spending time with a Jewish person, he breaks the shackles of his previously held ‘blind fanaticism’, as Stephen Merchant’s character refers to it in the movie.
Jojo’s journey into tolerance is one that generally works on most people. The more personal experience and connections one makes with people from different walks of life, the more they see them as human, and the less they believe in generalising or assumptive stories that aren’t based on fact.
So, watching a child go on this journey is obviously quite cathartic – showing that people’s extreme opinions can be changed. But despite this, simply watching a film that has this type of story doesn’t actually replicate it for the audience. Especially, when you consider how much more stubborn adults can be too.
Looping back around to Taika Waititi himself, he claimed that he did next to no research for his portrayal of Adolf Hitler, stating that he didn’t need to “because he was such a fucking cunt, and everyone knows that as well.” While this fits into his objective of further besmirching his legacy, it also undercuts the effectiveness of a plot point later on in the movie.
Throughout the first part of the movie, Waititi’s Hitler is the butt of the jokes. Yes, Jojo idolises him, but the audience laughs at his outlandish claims and clearly transparent lies. Whether that’s because we all know about his eventual demise, or just that it’s so surprising to hear this sort of racist discourse in the context of a big-budget comedy, seeing Hitler portrayed like this is very different. But, he is still Hitler. And when you think about the ideas behind the words being used for punchlines, they’re filled with an unbelievable amount of hate.
As Jojo is finally coming around to losing his stereotypical views of non-Aryan people, a final exchange with Hitler really brings it home. Losing his temper for the very first time, we see him for what he truly is – helping Jojo sever all ties with his Nazi identity. But, that doesn’t happen for the audience. Well, not the majority of them anyway.
Most viewers already know these ideas are outlandish. And taking the specific example of Nazis vs Jewish people out of the equation, this example of stereotypical caricatures being broken down isn’t particularly useful or applicable in the context of modern race issues.
Most people in modern society know that not all women are bad drivers, and expressing the opposite means you’re sharing a sexist opinion. The same for countless stereotypes across gender, race, and social lines. And seeing a rebuttal of these types of views on the big screen in 2020, as Jojo Rabbit does here, is something which feels a little out of sync for the younger generations. Like closing the stable door after the horse has already bolted.
And all of this isn’t to say the film isn’t good or enjoyable, it’s both! But it’s worrying that a movie that portrays racism as out and out evil, and as something that is so completely devoid of nuance is one of the only major Hollywood movies speaking about race right now. Especially in a time where there is so much more complexity out there.
What do you think? Leave a comment.