Dis­abled want to see dif­fer­ent end­ing at flicks

Me Be­fore You gets ac­tivists an­gry over its por­trayal of par­a­lyzed man’s death wish

Toronto Star - - ENTERTAINMENT - STEPHANIE MERRY THE WASHINGTON POST

Hol­ly­wood has a history of snub­bing mi­nor­ity groups, but there’s been some in­cre­men­tal progress re­cently. Just look at Mas­ter of None, Creed, Trans­par­ent, Straight Outta Comp­ton and Fresh Off the Boat.

Dis­abled char­ac­ters, how­ever, re­main an anom­aly and when they do show up they’re usu­ally ei­ther tragic vic­tims or sources of in­spi­ra­tion.

That may be chang­ing. Ac­tivists are out­raged at the new movie Me Be­fore You for its dis­abled lead char­ac­ter who feels his life is no longer worth liv­ing.

The spoiler-pho­bic should be warned: there’s no way to ex­plain this debate with­out di­vulging the end­ing of the just-re­leased movie and its source ma­te­rial, Jojo Moyes’s 2012 novel. The movie stars Sam Claflin as Will, 30, who was par­a­lyzed in an ac­ci­dent two years ago. Be­fore that, he was a posh Lon­don hot­shot with sporty hobbies. Now he barely leaves his par­ents’ es­tate. He’s plot­ting his as­sisted sui­cide when his mother hires a new care­giver: the ef­fer­ves­cent Louisa Clark (Emilia Clarke).

Long story short, the two fall in love. But even then, Will de­cides to die. “I can’t be the kind of man who just ac­cepts this,” he tells an in­con­solable Louisa.

Moyes re­ceived lauda­tory emails from dis­abled readers when the novel came out. But a ma­jor com­plaint with the movie is the de­ci­sion to end the story with Will’s sui­cide.

“I un­der­stand that it’s just a movie and it’s just one story, but when this is the pre­dom­i­nant nar­ra­tive that the me­dia keeps show­ing then I think we need to start hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about it,” said Emily Ladau, a dis­abil­ity ac­tivist who wrote a take­down of the movie’s overused vic­tim and in­spi­ra­tion tropes for Sa­lon.

Moyes didn’t pull the story out of thin air. She heard a news re­port about Daniel James, a rugby player who had been par­a­lyzed after an ac­ci­dent on the field. He trav­elled with his par­ents to Dig­ni­tas in Switzer­land, a des­ti­na­tion for peo­ple who want to end their lives.

“I found that deeply shock­ing,” Moyes said over the phone from Nor­way, where she’s do­ing a movie tour. “I couldn’t un­der­stand his think­ing; I couldn’t un­der­stand his par­ents’ think­ing. And I guess, as an ex-jour­nal­ist, I de­cided to read around as much as I could. It wouldn’t leave my head.”

What she re­al­ized from her re­search was that this 23-year-old man “just re­fused to adapt to his new life,” she said. “As a writer, I looked at the un­usual cir­cum­stances of that — be­cause most peo­ple do adapt — and I thought what would it be like to be him? What would it be like to be his mother? And what would it be like to be some­one try­ing to change his mind?”

All of this seems like fair game for a best­seller, right?

But ac­tivists ar­gue that seeing the same grim out­come for dis­abled char­ac­ters can be dam­ag­ing. Lawrence Carter-Long, an ad­viser to the ReelA­bil­i­ties film fes­ti­val, be­came an ac­tivist after seeing Mil­lion Dol­lar Baby in a theatre, think­ing it would be “Rocky in a sports bra.” (More spoil­ers com­ing.) In­stead, Clint East­wood’s char­ac­ter helps Hi­lary Swank’s quad­ri­plegic former boxer kill her­self. Dur­ing the cred­its, to Carter-Long’s sur­prise, the au­di­ence ap­plauded. View­ers he spoke to after the movie thought that even though it was tragic that the main char­ac­ter wanted to die, it was also un­der­stand­able.

“It dawned on me that that’s prob­a­bly an un­spo­ken as­sump­tion and even an un­ex­am­ined as­sump­tion peo­ple have about my life,” said Carter-Long, who was born with cere­bral palsy.

But it isn’t just the silent judg­ments that worry Carter-Long; it’s the pol­icy is­sue. In some places, it’s be­come eas­ier to die than to live.

“In dif­fer­ent states, in­surance com­pa­nies will pay for some­body’s med­i­ca­tion in or­der to take their own life,” Carter-Long said, “but some­body has to go to Kick­starter to get a wheelchair they need.

“So many of us are fight­ing just to live,” he added. “So if you see a movie where some­body, in al­most a cav­a­lier fash­ion, says, ‘I’d rather die,’ it doesn’t res­onate.”

After the novel came out, the Reeve Foun­da­tion did ap­plaud Moyes for writ­ing Will as not just a quad­ri­plegic char­ac­ter, but as a ro­man­tic lead. And the novel un­ques­tion­ably sheds light on some of the ob­sta­cles peo­ple with paral­y­sis face.

But the movie ver­sion prompted an­other charged ques­tion: why isn’t Will por­trayed by a dis­abled ac­tor?

“Othello was (once) played by Lau­rence Olivier in black­face and we would never think in this day and age of cast­ing a white per­son to play a black per­son,” said Jay Ru­d­er­man, pres­i­dent of the Ru­d­er­man Fam­ily Foun­da­tion. “Yet rou­tinely peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties are played by able­bod­ied peo­ple.”

Ladau agrees, though what she re­ally wants to see is dis­abled ac­tors por­trayed in all kinds of roles.

“We can be the love in­ter­est, we can be the best friend with­out the tragedy (fo­cus­ing) on dis­abil­ity, we can be the su­per­hero, we can be the adventurer, the ex­plorer,” she said.

Go­ing for­ward, there’s pres­sure for other writers to get it right. Next up is Speech­less, a sit­com star­ring Min­nie Driver as the mother of a dis­abled boy, and the movie The Fun­da­men­tals of Car­ing, in which Paul Rudd plays a young man’s care­giver. Thanks to the re­sponse to Me Be­fore You, those projects face a new world, in which dis­abil­ity ac­tivists feel more em­pow­ered than ever to share their feel­ings.

ALEX BAI­LEY/WARNER BROS. PIC­TURES

Sam Claflin, left, and Emilia Clarke star in Me Be­fore You, a film adapted from Jojo Moyes’s 2012 ro­mance novel.

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