The Two Faces of Nationality: Reflections from The Dark Knight's Harvey Dent

by Andrea Marilyn Pragashini Immanuel

August 2023

In this blog, Andrea Marilyn Pragashini Immanuel, PhD Candidate and Research Fellow at the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness, reflects on the duality of nationality by reading nationality through the fictional, ‘Two-Faced’ Harvey Dent in the popular culture film, The Dark Knight. She argues that much like Dent, nationality is often portrayed in international law as the White Knight, disregarding nationality’s destructive tendencies.

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is a film based on the DC Comics’ superhero, Batman. In The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent is an agent of the law, a successful District Attorney (DA), striving to rid the streets of the fictional Gotham city of criminals and to do justice through the law. As the DA, he acts within the bounds of the law (for the most part) with the head of the Gotham City Police Department’s Major Crimes Unit, Jim Gordon, characterising him as the ‘White Knight’ in contrast to the Batman described as the ‘Dark Knight’, operating in the shadows. After Dent loses his girlfriend, thanks to the actions of the main villain, the Joker, Dent reveals his ‘Two-Face’ personality. Facially disfigured in-part, Dent seeks revenge, committing a series of crimes.

In this blog, I explain the features of nationality through the characterisation of Harvey ‘Two-Face’ Dent, one of the villains in the film. Reading nationality through a character portrayed as a villain is not to demonize nationality. Rather, this reading helps illustrate the duality of nationality which, I argue, should be considered when addressing statelessness. By duality, I mean that nationality has positive and negative facets. In this regard, I use two examples of how statelessness is addressed: namely naturalisation and the provision of legal identity documents.

Legal scholars have studied law, justice and society through The Dark Knight. Also, in general, popular culture is helpful in understanding and explaining international law. While incorrect representations of statelessness have been criticised (and rightly so), the rich imagery and story-telling in films (and other forms of popular culture) can provide a useful tool to explain law, both in its framing and interpretation, which is the aim of this blog post.

Nationality and ‘Two-Faced’ Harvey Dent

In The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent as the DA is an essential part of the justice system in Gotham. While Batman functions outside the law, Dent prosecutes criminals through the law. But Dent’s methods are not beyond reproach even before he becomes ‘Two-Face’. One instance is where Dent and Gordon make 549 arrests. While the Mayor of the city calls it a ‘farce’, Dent argues that most of those arrested would not be able to afford the costs associated with trials and appeals and that they will ‘cut deals that include some jail time’. Dent, as an agent of the law, had a singular focus – to use the law (even bend it at times) to draw a line between persons who deserve to be imprisoned and those who deserved to enjoy their freedom of movement.

After his facial disfigurement, Dent’s criminal activity indicates the corruptibility of the White Knight. Such corruptibility was innate, in that, even as the White Knight, Dent knew how to work the law to achieve the purpose at hand. This is why, in the film, his disfigured face represented the two sides of his personality – the former, seemingly incorruptible side seeking justice as the agent of the law and the latter, corrupted, disfigured side, as the perpetrator of violence. Even then, in seeking retributive justice and justice that is fair, Dent as Two-Face could be considered as ‘fulfil[ling] the very role of the law itself: to provide meaning to suffering in the sense of punishing the criminal’. The film ends with Gordon choosing to hide Dent’s crimes (including abducting Gordon’s family) because Dent, as an agent of the law, had become a symbol which would be undone if the truth were known. In other words, the guarding of the legal system and its work took precedence over the truth.

Just like Dent, nationality, a creation of the law, is frequently understood as ‘an essential element’ of the state system, a sovereign power within the state’s reserved domain. In the same manner that Dent as a DA took legal action to fight crime and identify who was deserving of freedom of movement, nationality as a state power operates under law to identify who belongs to a state and is worthy of protection as the state’s own. This state power is protected under international law, with few limitations. Because nationality often operates through law (such as through nationality legislation), it might appear to have a singular role or face under international law and for the most part, can appear to be a ‘White Knight’, an agent of the law.

One of the key symbolisms to draw from The Dark Knight, is the indication that, during a time of crisis, duality surfaces. Similar to Dent, the ‘two-faced’-ness[1], or duality, of nationality often lurks in the background and surfaces in times of crisis. For instance, when there is a threat to national security or during situations of armed conflict, nationality seeks out the national and at times, reclassifies the national as illegal migrants or as enemy nationals (see for instance, here and here). Some examples of this are the denationalization policies of states involved in World War I and World War II, the denationalization policy of Ethiopia towards ethnic Eritreans during the 1998 Ethiopia Eritrea armed conflict and the rendering of 1.9 million at risk of statelessness through the National Register of Citizens in Assam, India in 2019 on the grounds of national security . That nationality can have negative implications for individuals is  highlighted in recent international legal scholarship (see for instance, here), acknowledging that nationality can be ‘a sword that states can command to harm or to oppress’. As Kingston notes, nationality ‘can be weaponised as a tool of repression and erasure, as well as used as a bargaining chip for social control’. Scholarship also indicates how states deliberately exclude individuals through nationality policies, often targeted at minorities.

Despite the potential for nationality to be ‘weaponised’, international law religiously guards the state power to take decisions about nationality in the same way that Gordon continued to guard Dent’s reputation and the system that he stood for even after he became Two-Face. Under international law, nationality thus has a ‘White Knight’ position just like Dent, making it difficult to question state actions pertaining to nationality, whether it is about nationality attribution, retention or deprivation. It is true that it is the state that takes actions about nationality. However, reading nationality through Dent articulates the corruptibility of nationality in the hands of whoever wields it (just as Dent was corrupted by the Joker).

‘Two-Faced’-ness of Nationality and Addressing Statelessness

Again, this blog does not attempt to demonize nationality, nor to insist that nationality should be completely controlled by international law, nor even to suggest the elimination of nationality. Instead, it is important for the two faces of nationality to be considered simultaneously while interpreting nationality throughout the international legal framework. Here, I highlight how to consider the duality of nationality within two modes of addressing statelessness.

First, naturalisation is considered an important solution for the reduction of statelessness, especially to prevent future intergenerational statelessness. This solution is beneficial for stateless persons because it provides them with a nationality and all the benefits that accompany possessing a nationality. At once, the invisibility that enshrouds a stateless person disappears, at least to an extent. However, as de Chickera explains in the context of arbitrary deprivation of nationality resulting in statelessness, when naturalisation is presented as a solution to such statelessness, it can lead to impunity for the deprivation of nationality as well as make second-class citizens of former nationals of the state. Another example is where naturalisation can be employed to convert nationals of one state or territory into another, sometimes forcibly, as is the case in the territories occupied by Russia (see here and here ) and Morocco. In the Russian-occupied Crimea, Russia has implemented a policy of automatic naturalization where Ukrainian nationals, through the application of Russia’s nationality law, became Russian nationals. Those who chose to ‘opt-out’ of this policy continue to face harassment and discrimination (see here and here). Similarly, in Morocco-occupied Western Sahara territory, Morocco extended its nationality law to Western Sahara territory whereby the indigenous Saharawis automatically became Moroccan citizens (see here and here). These examples indicate that nationality has a duality (exhibited through the nationality mechanism of naturalisation) – it can make stateless persons nationals but also can be forcefully conferred on individuals. In light of this, recognising the duality of nationality whilst suggesting naturalisation as a solution to statelessness might prevent states from weaponising nationality (in the words of Kingston) whilst also supporting state action to provide a legal status for stateless persons.

Second, the provision of legal identity documents including nationality documents is important to address statelessness. This is because, often, stateless persons or persons at risk of statelessness lack documents to establish their nationality within a state and may be unable to access rights and services. In this regard, initiatives of the UN and other development organisations to ensure that everyone has a legal identity document could be helpful. However, as Sperfeldt notes, identity documents can be issued in a discriminatory manner or can contain information that is used to discriminate. In this sense, when underlying discriminatory nationality policies pervade identity documents, they can result in deprivation of nationality and statelessness. Also, in certain situations such as during armed conflict, identity documents are confiscated to destroy the nationality ties of the individual with the state (see for instance, here and here). Accordingly, nationality operates as an identity that needs protection as well as an identity that leads to harm to individuals. Thus, responses to statelessness should be mindful of this duality of nationality.

In conclusion, this blog read nationality through the characterisation of The Dark Knight’s Harvey Dent to illustrate the duality, or ‘two-faced’-ness, of nationality and argued that it is important to consider this duality when addressing statelessness. The two faces of nationality are contradictory faces which is what makes it difficult to factor this in when addressing statelessness. However, instead of portraying nationality as either the ‘White Knight’ or as something with only destructive tendencies, I suggest that both these aspects of nationality are to be considered simultaneously. Consequently, nationality does not operate as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ but as having two faces.

[1] I use ‘Two-Face’ instead of ‘janus-faced’ because the former better depicts the contradictory and contrasting faces of nationality.