Tonight on TCM, “Cinemability: The Art of Inclusion” tells the story of disability representation in films, followed by some classic, if not consistent with current standards, examples, including “Freaks” (“You’re one of us now!”), “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and “Johnny Belinda,” with Oscar-winner Jane Wyman as a young deaf woman.
For many years, it seemed that the most reliable way to get an Oscar was to play someone with disabilities. In addition to Wyman, actors who have won Oscars for portraying disabled or ill characters include Dustin Hoffman (“Rain Man”), Daniel Day-Lewis (“My Left Foot”), Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”), Geoffrey Rush (“Shine”), Al Pacino (“Scent of a Woman”), Jamie Foxx (“Ray”), Tom Hanks (“Forrest Gump”), Tom Hanks again (“Philadelphia”), Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club”), Marlee Matlin (“Children of a Lesser God”), Jack Nicholson (“As Good as it Gets”), and Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”). Of those, only Matlin had the real-life disability she was portraying. Increasingly, Hollywood is being urged to cast disabled actors to play disabled characters, which will open up opportunities to talented performers and provide more meaningful authenticity to the representation we see on screen.
Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language throughout, some violence and smoking
Some peril and violence, character injured
A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters:
August 9, 2019
The story behind the making of “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is as sweet and inspiring as the one on the screen. Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz met ZacK Gottsagen when they were working at an arts program for people with disabilities. Gottsagen, who has has Down syndrome, told them he wanted to be an actor, and asked them to write a movie for him. So they checked some books about screenwriting out of the library and came up with this script, which is not just about a character based on Gottsagen, but about their community of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The sense of place (though it was filmed in Georgia) is as important to the film as the characters on an unexpected journey.
It is remarkably assured for a first film, with an excellent supporting cast of talented pros and superb cinematography and music choices. The genuine affection and — especially — the respect Nilson and Schwartz have for the real-life Zack and the character he plays keep this story from being condescending or sugary.
Gottsagen plays a character also named Zack, a young man with no family and no resources who has been placed by Virginia authorities in the only facility they could find for him, a nursing home for the elderly. His roommate there is a retired engineer named Carl (Bruce Dern), who helps him escape, after watching Zack’s VHS tape of his favorite wrestler, the Salt Water Redneck for the zillionth time. Zack wants to be a wrestler, and his dream is to get to the Salt Water Redneck’s training facility in Florida. This is not one of those “there is none so cognitively impaired as those who will not think” movies.
Importantly, Zack is not a narrative convenience for the other characters to learn lessons and feel better about themselves. Zack (the character) is a real person with some limitations but a cheerful disposition and a true heart. His view of the world is as constrained by the restricted environment he was put in as by his cognitive ability. “The state has to put you somewhere and this happens to be that place,” he is told. You do not have to have a PhD to know that does not make much sense. And you don’t have to do higher math or be able to explain the metaphors in Moby Dick to know that people want to be with friends and follow their dreams. This movie is very much his story and he is very much at the heart of it.
The nursing home administrator does not want to report Zack’s escape to the police, so he sends a sympathetic aide (Dakota Johnson as Eleanor) to find him. Zack’s lack of planning (he escapes wearing nothing but underpants and has no money) helps in a way because he is seen as vulnerable and non-threatening. Tyler (Shia LeBoeuf) is a tidewater fisherman who has fallen on hard times, in part due to his bitterness and grief and guilt over the death of his brother (Jon Bernthal, glimpsed in wordless flashbacks). His own poor judgment escalates a fight with another fisherman (John Hawkes), who comes after him. Tyler does his best to avoid taking responsibility for Zack, but gives in when he sees how much Zack needs help. On the road, they have adventures, encounter interesting people, and begin to first trust and then like one another.
One of the highlights of the film is when they meet a blind man who insists on baptizing Zach. Tyler refuses, saying he prefers baptism by fire. It is presented with sincerity and a delicate lyricism that helps elevate the folkloric tone, as does the exceptional soundtrack and the exquisite cinematography, all of which set the tone for the satisfying conclusion.
Parents should know that this movie has some peril and violence, including arson, shooting, and an attack with a tire iron and an off-screen fatal car accident. There is some strong language, a character runs around in underwear, drinking and drunkenness, and a kiss.
Family discussion: What made Tyler change his mind about helping Zack? Why did the Saltwater Redneck encourage Zack to fight? What will happen next?
If you like this, try: “Little Miss Sunshine” (rated R) from the same producers, “Where Hope Grows,” and “Up Syndrome”
“Wonder” is now one of the first major films to be translated into American Sign Language. It is especially fitting that this beautiful film about kindness and acceptance is accessible to the Deaf community in their own language.
Lionsgate announced its partnership with the mobile application Actiview and Deaf activist and actor Nyle DiMarco to create an ASL interpretation of Wonder. That family-friendly film, which debuted in November 2017 as a Lionsgate movie, tells the story of a young boy with facial differences caused by a genetic syndrome who is bullied when he begins attending mainstream school in the fifth grade. The 2012 home release of the animated film Ice Age: Continental Drift also included ASL interpretation.
“I hope that shows Deaf/ viewers that there could be more options for enjoying movies and television,” DiMarco wrote in an email. “Mostly I hope that studios and networks reflect on how accessible their content is and look at ways that they can improve. It would be amazing if in the not-too-distant future all viewable content had an ASL option.”
The ASL interpretation of Wonder is available via Actiview, an iOS app that includes accessibility features for people who are blind or have low vision as well as those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Users sync their app to the content they’re watching on a TV, laptop, or theater screen, and choose from accessibility options like audio descriptions, captions, and amplified audio. Their mobile device becomes a second screen that provides additional content to improve the movie-watching experience.
Ant-Man and the Wasp’s treatment of disability will go under the radar. But in a landscape where disability remains marginalized, particularly for women of color (and people of color in general), a character like Ava could have helped opened the door. Chronic pain remains a hot-button issue in the disabled community, and having Ava live with it could have presented something relatable. Instead, Ava is stripped of her problem in order to make her rational, quantifiable, and controllable.
I was interested to see how she would react to Dwayne Johnson’s portrayal of a disabled character in “Skyscraper.” While I prefer to see disabled characters played by disabled actors, I also recognize the idea that any actor should be able to play any part. Until ordinary characters — teachers, accountants, doctors, scientists, parents, children — are shown with disabilities that are not central to their identity and are played by actors with disabilities, I think we should be careful about putting able-bodied people in those roles. And no body is more able than The Rock.
First, she says, “the adversity is the building itself, not Will’s disability….By not making a big deal of his disability, Will is a character who represents a marked improvement in representation. People with disabilities don’t want their disability to define them, and Will’s doesn’t define his character. It adds to it…. His character doesn’t walk away a changed man appreciating being disabled. He gets his family back and seemingly ends the film the same way he started. It’s just a facet of his personality he deals with in order to overcome this great challenge.”
But, she has some concerns as well. “The character is also written to fall into the “able-bodied buffer” category, a term I use to describe any character shown as previously able-bodied before a traumatic event. This ‘buffer’ is created as a means of helping the able-bodied audience bond with the newly disabled character, under the belief that disabled people are so mysterious that there’s no point of entry for the audience short of reminding them the character was one ‘like you.'”
I wasn’t the only one who appreciated this review.
Wow. I am officially verklempt. @TheRock thanks for taking the time to read my piece! Disabled representation has a long road to travel, but I was happy to see movement being made. pic.twitter.com/KvhPq5MvlR
Movie MVP of the Month: American Sign Language in “Rampage” and “A Quiet Place”
Posted on April 11, 2018 at 8:22 am
Two April movies feature ASL (American Sign Language), the beautiful, complex language based on hands, gestures, and facial expressions that is used by Deaf and non-speaking people in America and English-speaking Canada. “A Quiet Place” is about a family trying to survive in a world overrun with vicious blind animals who attack by using their hyper-acute hearing. So they communicate via ASL, which they all know because they have a Deaf daughter, played by Deaf actress Millicent Simmonds of “Wonderstruck.”
In this week’s “Rampage,” the primatologist played by Dwayne Johnson uses ASL to communicate with an ape called George, along the lines of the famous experiments with Koko the gorilla and Washoe the chimp.
And the 2017 Oscar-winner for Best Picture and Best Director was “The Shape of Water,” which also featured ASL, as Sally Hawkins played a mute woman who communicated with a highly evolved amphibian.
Other movies featuring character using ASL to communicate include: “Children of a Lesser God,” “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” “Johnny Bedelia,” “The Miracle Worker,” and “Baby Driver.”