The Independent

Film is still getting it wrong when it comes to disability

Ahead of the Oscars, James Moore asks if last year’s Best Picture winner really was a breakthrou­gh for representa­tion, and says it’s time to end the practice of actors ‘cripping up’


“A gamechange­r in terms of representa­tion,” it was said after CODA won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Troy Kotsur won Best Supporting Actor for his role as Frank Rossi in the film, becoming only the third actor with a disability to win an Oscar. If so, it’s a funny old game. If CODA was one step forward, this year has delivered two steps back, because what do we have?

Brendan Fraser in a fatsuit, sitting in a wheelchair he doesn’t need, may win Best Actor for the cruelly named The Whale. True, obesity hasn’t traditiona­lly been viewed as a disability, although a European Court of Justice ruling held that it could be considered as such where it hinders “full and effective participat­ion in the workplace”. But even if you don’t see Fraser’s role as equivalent to the persistent “cripping up” Hollywood actors have engaged in to tempt awards voters, it’s in the same ballpark.

“I think fatphobia is a symptom of ableism,” says Kyla Harris, a disabled artist, filmmaker, and member of the Disability Screen Advisory Group at the British Film Institute (BFI). While this year does make CODA look like a light in the darkness, was it quite as revolution­ary as some claimed? That is open to debate.

After it pipped long-time betting favourite The Power of the Dog, some drew comparison­s to the way Green Book fended off the more challengin­g – and much better – Roma in 2018, which nonetheles­s bagged a gong for its director, Alfonso Cuarón, as Dog did for Jane Campion. To be fair, CODA is a superior film to Green Book, and enjoyed a better critical reception. After a year darned by the pandemic, it was perhaps unsurprisi­ng that the academy went for its feel-good narrative in preference to Dog,a film more to be endured than enjoyed.

But just as Green Book’s racial politics received some criticism – it was mauled in the New York Times as a “racial reconcilia­tion fantasy” by Wesley Morris – so are CODA’s disability politics awkward. The film is the story of the able-bodied Ruby Rossi, the CODA or “child of deaf adults” of the title.

Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the scion of a hardscrabb­le but loving New England family of four, of which she is the only member who can hear. Before attending classes at her high school, in the Massachuse­tts town of Gloucester, she works on the family’s fishing boat with her father and her older brother Leo, where she gives voice to her passion: singing. The tension in the film comes from her joining the school choir where her music teacher recognises that she has real talent, talent that could get her a scholarshi­p at a prestigiou­s conservanc­y – which would mean a break from her family. That’s the coming of age.

It is an adaptation of a French picture, set on and around a farm rather than in and around a fishing community. La Famille Bélier used actors with perfect hearing to portray its deaf characters, whose lack of hearing was where a lot of the comedy came from. This drew considerab­le, and justified, criticism, including barbs aimed at the actors’ imperfect use of French sign language.

CODA didn’t make the same mistake. The filmmakers cast deaf actors for its deaf characters, which paid dividends, most

obviously in the case of Kotsur. Hollywood isn’t usually any better than the French film industry was with CODA’s inspiratio­n, so this was to the filmmakers’ credit. The phenomenon of having able-bodied actors “crip up” is a longstandi­ng and persistent problem.

John Lawson, an actor and filmmaker who lost his hands in an accident, drew attention to the issue in 2020 when he tweeted with justifiabl­e anger: “In the last three decades, half of the men that have won @TheAcademy Best Oscar for a male leading role have won for playing a disability.”

Plenty of the female winners have done the same, a point made by the University of Southern California’s Center for Health Journalism. It references the 1957 film The Three Faces of Eve, in which Joanne Woodward played a woman with multiple personalit­y disorder, and Anne Bancroft’s portrayal of Annie Sullivan, the visually impaired teacher and companion of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker (1962).

The only other actors with actual disabiliti­es to win awards besides Kotsur are Marlee Matlin, his CODA co-star as Ruby’s mother Jackie, who took home a Best Actress statuette in 1987 for her role in Children of a Lesser God (not to mention a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, a Golden Globe and a long list of nomination­s). Before that, you have to go back to Harold Russell, who lost his hands in World War Two and went on to win a Best Supporting Actor gong in 1947 for The Best Years of Our Lives.

Despite these positives, my problem with the film (expressed in a column written last year) was with its framing. And that remains having rewatched it. While CODA does some admirable things in showing a realistic, and earthy, disabled family, whose members fight and screw and embarrass their sometimes bratty hearing teenaged daughter, the story is all Ruby’s. The family’s deafness is a plot device used to define her journey, from being tied to them as interprete­r in the hearing world, to leaving to pursue her passion.

That is just a little bit patronisin­g, a point made by some of the film’s deaf critics. “My hopes were so high, and I was so disappoint­ed at the missteps and missed opportunit­ies,” Jenna Beacom, a young adult author, told USA Today. “And so much is misreprese­nted, especially deaf people's competence and ability to thrive in 2021.” In a Tweet she added: “Ruby is 17 in the movie; she's been interpreti­ng for a maximum of say 12 years. Frank’s been there his whole life. What did he do before that? The dependence is so unrealisti­c.”

The story of Ruby’s brother Leo is disappoint­ingly pushed into the sidelines and that’s a pity. It offers a counter-narrative. I noticed it a lot more second time around and connected with it. Leo – played by Daniel Durant, whose acting also deserves more attention than it got – is happy to stay home and work on the

We ought to be able to move on from cheering a film purely for offering a little representa­tion. Representa­tion should be taken as read

family’s boat. He loves Ruby and engages in an amusing “who can come up with the most obscene ASL sign” with her, but thinks the family can manage perfectly well without her. As it presumably did before her birth. As deaf families do all over the world.

That’s the thing about disability. You learn to deal with it. You learn to manage. It’s nice for me to have members of my family around to help with things my own broken body won’t do anymore. Putting socks and shoes on would be one example. But I can manage, even though it can be quite the struggle.

Leo can lip read, although it is intimated that he isn’t as good at it as he makes out, which is also pity. But he’s portrayed as tough and competent in other ways. In a tough business, in a tough town, he can f- and fight with the best of them.

The family – sans Ruby – ultimately play a key role in establishi­ng a cooperativ­e to secure a better deal for all the town’s fishermen. So there’s that too. But it’s another subplot. Films putting disabled characters in the lead – and providing an opportunit­y for disabled actors in so doing – are still vanishingl­y rare.

Lawson’s criticism holds. Having able-bodied actors crip up is still the rule of thumb. This also infuriates Dorban, a big believer in the rallying cry of the disability rights movement: “Nothing

about us without us.” She highlights the BFI “press reset” campaign which opposes the practice.

“It’s so archaic. Disability is unique in that it can span across any intersecti­on and anyone can become part of it. There is a lot of shame and fear associated with it from thousands of years of oppression and we are still seeing that in our exclusion from film, both in front of and behind the camera.

“The practice of ‘cripping up’, of non-disabled actors in disabled roles, is a real problem. A horrendous example was Sia’s Music (which concerned autism and used a non-autistic actor in the title role). She consulted just one group, but it didn’t contain many voices and was an extremely problemati­c organisati­on. And she thought that was enough. Another box ticked.

“To me, by continuous­ly putting non-disabled actors in disabled roles, it perpetuate­s disabled actors’ inability to advance their careers. I’m a person of colour and I’m also disabled. The trajectory of the two is very different, but there is crossover. Nobody would say blacking up is appropriat­e but we are still cripping up. It’s like, Brian Cox from Succession. He made an incredibly disparagin­g remark saying that disabled people shouldn’t be cast in disabled roles because we’d find it too distressin­g. Really?”

Cox said authentic casting is “wrong, because it’s acting, it’s a piece of craft”, and argued that casting a disabled or mentally ill

person to play a character with the same condition “might be exploitati­ve”.

Dorban also has issues with CODA’s framing but she highlights some of the positive aspects too: “What makes a compelling story is the idea of the hero or main character caught in between two worlds. They used deafness and her (Ruby) being not quite a part of the deaf world because she was not deaf but also not being fully part of hearing world because of how she was raised. It used a bit of a trope to create the tension of the central narrative. At the same time the performanc­es of the deaf actors were fantastic. It is a good conversati­on piece that can lead to discussion­s about increasing the profile of deaf talent.”

Those discussion­s need to be held, across the entertainm­ent industry. And it isn’t just deaf people. Disabled people make up maybe 20, maybe 25 per cent of the population. But they are still largely invisible on screen. There is often the whiff of tokenism when they do appear. In that respect CODA was beneficial. It showed people with disabiliti­es in a relatively positive light. It proved that those roles can be very successful­ly given to actors with the disability they are portraying, as did A Quiet Place Part II in the same year.

But we ought to be able to move on from cheering a film purely for offering a little representa­tion. Representa­tion should be taken as read. Except it’s not. As this year’s awards season proves, disabled people are often described as the “invisible minority”. In Hollywood, and the entertainm­ent industry in general, they are still largely invisible.

Want your views to be included in The Independen­t Daily Edition letters page? Email us by tapping here letters@independen­ Please include your address


 ?? (AP) ?? ‘CODA’, which stands for child of deaf adults, took the top spot in 2022
(AP) ‘CODA’, which stands for child of deaf adults, took the top spot in 2022
 ?? (AP) ?? TroyKotsur,w ho played Frank Rossi, is the third actor with a disability to win an Oscar
(AP) TroyKotsur,w ho played Frank Rossi, is the third actor with a disability to win an Oscar
 ?? (A24) ?? Brendan Fraser wears heavy prosthetic­s in‘ The Whale’
(A24) Brendan Fraser wears heavy prosthetic­s in‘ The Whale’
 ?? (AP) ?? Audience members sign ‘app l ause’ as ‘CODA’ takes Best Picture at l ast year’s Oscars
(AP) Audience members sign ‘app l ause’ as ‘CODA’ takes Best Picture at l ast year’s Oscars
 ?? l (Apple TV Plus) ?? Leo (Danie l Durant) in ‘CODA’, whose story cou d have been made much more of
l (Apple TV Plus) Leo (Danie l Durant) in ‘CODA’, whose story cou d have been made much more of

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom