Disability in Film
Disability in film isn’t a new topic, but recent films have taken on the subject matter both in positive and not-so-positive ways. We’ve had Bird Box, The Upside, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, and others. Television has also joined in with such shows as Speechless, Atypical, and The Good Doctor. We’re happy to see these projects come out and hope more will follow to help further expose people to the world of disability. Still, not all exposure is good exposure and we want to make sure we point out what’s working and what isn’t so we can all learn from these issues moving forward. For the purposes of this article, we’d like to focus on the two most recent films to be released, The Upside and Bird Box, to help us explore this topic of representation of persons with disabilities and special needs in our media.
Let’s get this out of the way first: we acknowledge that making movies is HARD. It requires millions of dollars to be invested and hundreds of people working long hours both before, during, and after filming takes place. Many times, if a film gets something wrong about disability, it’s often tied to this struggle. With that in mind, let’s dive in and explore what we can take away from these two films.
Let’s start with The Upside. According to IMDB.com this film is “a comedic look at the relationship between a wealthy man with quadriplegia and an unemployed man with a criminal record who’s hired to help him.” This is a film that probably would not have been made if it weren’t for the attachment of its biggest stars Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, and Nicole Kidman. It’s a lovely film. It does so much right, including its portrayal of the caregiver/receiver relationship. It even finds multiple moments to remind the audience about how to give people with disabilities the respect they deserve. Kevin Hart’s character tells his son, “Look Mr. Lacasse in the eye when you talk to him.” Wonderful advice for anyone who speaks to a person with a disability. He also reminds store clerks to ask their questions directly to the person in the wheelchair, rather than asking the caregiver. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
The only troublesome piece of this film is when it comes to Bryan Cranston’s character (and real-life person the character is based on) not being played by an actor with a disability. Bryan Cranston has addressed this issue in an interview with the BBC saying, “As actors we’re asked to play other people. If I, as a straight, older person, and I’m wealthy, I’m very fortunate, does that mean I can’t play a person who is not wealthy? Does that mean I can’t play a homosexual?” and then on Sky News said, “We’re very aware of the need to expand the opportunities for people with disabilities. I don’t know, where does the restriction apply, where is the line for that?”
It would be difficult to imagine he would use this rhetoric regarding playing a historical figure of color like Martin Luther King Jr. or Bruce Lee. Still, unlike race, disability is not always something you are born with and can be something you acquire later in life, much like the character Cranston plays did. What these comparisons have in common however, is a historical disenfranchisement of a particular group of people. When you are not part of that group and you step in to take a role that could be easily filled by a member of that group, you are taking a potential job from that individual. Easterseals New Jersey provides employment opportunities for people with disabilities and special needs so this is of particular interest to us. We want actors with disabilities to be cast in a multitude of roles, not only those which are biopics of people with disabilities. Still, at this point we’ll take what we can get. We’ve seen examples where this has worked out perfectly in the film A Quiet Place, where director John Krasinski insisted a deaf actress play the character of the daughter who is deaf. Now that young woman has an impressive film on her resume that she might have otherwise not have had.
And Now For Bird Box
Bird Box tells the tale of a mother and her two children as they make a desperate bid to reach safety after the world is sent into chaos by an unknown force. Through much of the movie, the characters are forced to wear blindfolds because if you look directly at the monsters, you would be driven to suicide. In the end, *spoiler alert* they find refuge in a school for the blind. This is wonderful, because it shows how in some circumstances, different abilities can become an asset. The actor who portrays the school’s caretaker though, plays a blind man without himself being blind. Though, this is the smallest issue in the film. The larger problem is the way in which they portray people with mental illness. In this film, when persons with serious mental illness are exposed to the supernatural force, they are turned into agents of that force. They go around attempting to expose others to the evil, which results in the individual exposed committing a brutal suicide. This is yet another instance where Hollywood has decided to vilify persons with mental illness.
This is a dangerous pattern that perpetuates an untrue stereotype surrounding those with mental illness. With the proper support, those with serious persistent mental illness can live full, vibrant lives like anyone else. Perpetuating these stereotypes can cause the public to become fearful of this population and distance themselves. This also impacts advocacy efforts. As we advocate for community integration of persons with mental illness, we don’t want policy makers to have Bird Box as the last film they saw. We understand that filmmakers need to find antagonistic forces to push their main characters, but we encourage the creatives helming these projects will consider these implications when taking on their next projects.
In the meantime, Easterseals is doing its part to diversify this industry. Easterseals Southern California has been running their annual Disability Film Challenge and provided plenty of opportunities for people to enter the field of entertainment. Check it out when you can and see all the amazing work they’ve done!