Trial by Media on Netflix delves into the real-life Joker subway scene

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Photo credit: Warner Bros.

From Digital Spy

The subway shooting in Todd Phillips's Joker is a seminal moment in the movie.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is on his way home after another demoralising day at the office when things turn ugly inside a New York subway train.

He starts laughing uncontrollably, a symptom of pseudobulbar affect (PBA), the neurological disorder that he suffers from. Arthur's outburst grabs the attention of three men in suits who are harassing a young woman sat near them.

They move closer to him, one of them singing 'Send in the Clowns', and he continues to laugh, maniacally.

Initially entertained by his cackling, their perplexity morphs into rage and disgust. The city boys begin roughhousing him, snatching away his belongings, before driving him down to the floor and repeatedly kicking him.

Arthur responds by taking out his gun and shooting all three of them dead, before scurrying off, undetected, into the night.

It plunges the city into hysteria and the Joker mythology is born.

Photo credit: Warner Bros.

In Netflix's Trial By Media, episode two, titled 'Subway Vigilante', delves into the real-life case that inspired that moment in the Oscar-winning film.

On December 22, 1984, Bernhard Goetz shot four black, unarmed teenagers – Barry Allen, Troy Canty, Darrell Cabey and James Ramseur – on the NYC subway. Unlike Joker, the men didn't die, but they were wounded, one significantly so.

Following the shooting, he fled the scene and police were unable to track him down.

Goetz, his identity a mystery, was nicknamed the "subway vigilante" by the press and hailed by many as a hero.

During that period, New York was in the grip of a violent crime crisis, largely fuelled by the crack cocaine epidemic.

The crime increase in New York also exceeded that of the rest of the country, which made the situation more desperate.

People were not only afraid, they felt that not enough was being done to protect them and reverse those highly concerning statistics.

That created the perfect atmosphere for Goetz's actions to be celebrated rather than condemned.

Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images

It was Goetz who handed himself in to the authorities.

During the police interviews, he said that the four men had demanded money from him, using threatening behaviour to intimidate him.

But rather than turn out his pockets, Goetz took out his gun and shot each of them.

"You see, what they said wasn't even so much as important as the look, the look, you see — the body language…They wanted to play with me. You know, it's kind of like a cat plays with a mouse before, you know…" said Goetz in his confession (via The New York Times).

It also arose that he had been mugged before on two occasions, one of which saw him thrown into a plate-glass door and as a result, suffered torn cartilage in his chest and damage to his knees.

He applied for a gun license but his request was denied. He did, however, eventually manage to get his hands on a firearm.

Goetz was later acquitted of attempted murder in 1987 but he did have to spend eight and a half months behind bars for carrying an illegal weapon.

Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images

The shooting carried out by Goetz, while inspiring that scene in Joker, does stand in stark contrast to the film for one reason in particular: the men killed by Arthur are white, but Goetz took aim at four black teenagers.

Race was a key aspect of this case.

"I think that Mr Goetz was seriously psychologically damaged by former muggings and that in his mind, young blacks are the stereotypical type muggers," said Reverend Al Sharpton in the documentary.

"I'm firmly convinced that if those four boys had been white, he would not have assumed they were out to mug him until they actually tried to mug him."

That debate that gained momentum when more information emerged about the man at the centre of it.


Photo credit: New York Post Archives - Getty Images

During the deposition for the civil suit which was brought against Goetz by Darrell Cabey, who had been paralysed from the waist down and suffered irreversible brain damage, a disturbing element of his character emerged.

Goetz admitted to making "several statements" during a building association meeting back in 1980 to discuss the cleaning up of 14th street, including: "The only way we're going to clean up this street is to get ride of the n****ers and the sp*cs."

During the deposition, he did say that he was ashamed of what he'd said and had apologised, but for a number of people, it confirmed what they already believed about him and the shooting: it was motivated by racism and unconscious bias.

The language he used in his police interviews had also alienated many prior to that reveal.

"I'm not a fighter, or something like that, but you have to think in a cold-blooded way in New York," he said (via The New York Times).

"I wanted to kill those guys. I wanted to maim those guys. I wanted to make them suffer in every way I could... If I had more bullets, I would have shot them all again and again. My problem was I ran out of bullets."

Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images

There were also conflicting statements about what had happened on the subway.

Goetz said that the teens had surrounded him, but Ramseur claimed that only one of them, Canty, had approached Goetz. The rest either tried to help their fallen friend or turned to run.

Some witnesses who were present at the scene attested to Goetz's statement, but there were a number who supported Ramseur's claim.

It also emerged that Cabey was already wounded when Goetz said, "You don't look too bad, here's another", before shooting him in the back, in turn damaging his spinal cord.

It is now widely accepted that Goetz's response was disproportionate to the threat that he claimed he faced.

Photo credit: Rick Maiman - Getty Images

The majority of reports say that Goetz is still living in New York. He ran for mayor back in 2001 and for public advocate in 2005. He lost in both races.

He was also arrested for selling marijuana to an undercover police offer in 2013, but the charges were dropped a year later.

The civil suit concluded that Cabey was to be awarded $18 million for past and future pain and suffering, and $25 million in punitive damages. Goetz declared bankruptcy.

According to a 1995 Los Angeles Times article, Canty spent time in drug rehab and trained as a mechanic. He was convicted of shoplifting in 1990 and completed a year's probation in Westchester County in 1991.

Allen served time in prison for robbing a 58-year-old diabetic of $54.

Ramseur was convicted of raping, sodomising and robbing a pregnant woman in 1986 during the Goetz trial. In 2011, he was found dead, his death investigated as an apparent overdose and possible suicide.

Trial by Media is airing now on Netflix.

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