This year the Oscars will feature a best picture candidate about a drummer with hearing loss, a nominated documentary about a hippie camp for disabled youth, and a reference to the first film starring a deafblind actor. This is progress for the representation of people with disabilities in Hollywood, nominee filmmakers told AFP – but one that needs to be built on to prevent progress from slipping off our screens again.
British actor Riz Ahmed plays a drummer who loses his hearing in “Sound of Metal,” one of several Oscar-nominated films about disability. So far, Tinseltown producers “haven’t done a very good job – but they know we’re bringing it to their attention,” said Paul Raci, who was raised by deaf parents. “I’m one of the guys who has to be on the front lines not to drop the ball … and bring them to the attention of all the deaf artists that we have, all of the disabled artists, all of the genius that out there is indescribable stories on everyone, ”Raci told AFP. The caution is understandable. This is a street Hollywood tried to drive down before. In 1948, Jane Wyman, a hearing actress, won an Oscar for playing a deaf-mute woman in Johnny Belinda – a miscast that Raci likes to compare to “nails on a blackboard.” Real progress was made in 1987 when Deaf Marlee Matlin won the Oscar for Best Actress for “Children of a Little God”. But until recently, this was a strong exception to the norm, even though Hollywood has made leaps and bounds on inclusive content involving filmmakers and Black and LGBTQ themes. “Often times, when the spotlight is on underrepresented communities, the disability community takes a back seat,” said Doug Roland, director of the Oscar-nominated short film “Feeling Through”. Roland is capable, but his short film was inspired by a late night encounter with a deaf-blind man who needed help crossing a New York street. He cast first-time actor Robert Tarango – according to filmmakers, the first deaf-blind person to star in a film. Matlin herself came on board as executive producer, and the film is now on an Oscar shortlist of five. “This conversation has really shifted a lot to the disabled community and the voices are louder,” said Roland.
But representing disabilities is an uphill battle in entertainment because prejudices are “very deep and difficult to identify,” and those who hold them are often not even aware of their prejudices, according to Roland. The community is “often viewed as” less than “in a way that is stricter than other communities” or even “almost subhuman,” he told AFP. “This is something that may have choked people who really listen or lean on or take it seriously.” Raci, who plays an addiction counselor who lost his hearing late in life on “Sound of Metal”, agreed that “people are afraid of the unknown or threatened”. “Deafness is a hidden disability – there is no sign in someone who says I am deaf,” he told AFP. Another obstacle for actors with disabilities is physical access to film sets and locations that are not always equipped for a wide range of people such as wheelchair users or the blind. This month, A-listers like Amy Poehler and Naomie Harris signed an open letter to the top film studios asking them to hire permanent disability officers who would help find opportunities for disabled talent and ensure a wider recruitment. To change Hollywood’s course, actor Nic Novicki launched a film competition in 2013 that requires at least one crew or cast member with a disability. This is now the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge. “When I started … we were very underrepresented – a lot more than we are now,” said Novicki, who has some form of dwarfism and was tired of being offered standardized roles where disability was “the act”. “If you watch the Oscars this year, the evidence is in the pudding,” he added, also referring to the Oscar-nominated documentary, Crip Camp.
Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company film begins on a summer camp for disabled youth in New York in the 1970s, before revealing their oversized role in the US disability rights movement. “This is one of the most comprehensive and beautiful films I can remember,” Novicki praised his co-director James Lebrecht, a lifelong wheelchair user who was born with Spina Bifida. With about a quarter of the world’s population suffering from a disability, the “largest minority in the world” is still severely underrepresented even at this year’s Oscars, Novicki said. But “I think we’re at this tipping point, honestly … it’s getting more and more included in the mindset of everyone in the entertainment industry,” he said. “It can’t be all these able-bodied people, that’s not how it works,” agreed Raci. “It’s time to pay attention, this and that and that – everything.”
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