Negative Discrimination: Disability in Film

Bryan Cranston in The Upside

Bryan Cranston in The Upside, where he plays a quadriplegic man.

Acting is about pretending to be someone you’re not – unless you’re Adam Sandler, then you just play the same guy until someone eventually punches you in the face. But, over time things have changed; a long time ago the white man was the sole person allowed to appear on stage. They played the man, the woman, the black person, the children, even the animals. Shakespeare even started making fun of this in his own plays, though in cinema women were clearly considered more important, as they were allowed to act.

It was considered fine for white people to ‘black up’ for roles in films – infamously Sir Laurence Olivier made an ill-judged Othello in which he put on black make-up, rubber lips, an afro and affected an accent that was somewhere between Africa and whatever accent Shia LaBeouf was doing in Nymphomaniac. Even then, it was a long long road to diversity (we’re still getting there).

Recently the subject of whitewashing has been getting more and more aggressive, as has ‘trans-facing’, but something that hasn’t always been at the forefront of people’s minds is able actors playing the roles of people with disabilities.

In the past, come awards season, an actor getting into a wheelchair has been a sure fire way to get some awards. Daniel Day-Lewis famously spent the entire shoot of My Left Foot in a wheelchair – he made people carry him to the toilet. Eddie Redmayne won his Oscar for playing Stephen Hawking.

It’s not that there is no place for someone to play a disabled actor, there is, but there is also an ongoing suppression in the film and television industry to not give the opportunities to actors with disabilities. There is a time when being able and playing disability is logical – a film such as Million Dollar Baby in which it is the story of someone who by the end of the film has a disability is one that makes sense. And yet, the list of films where people without a disability play a character with is embarrassingly long.

And yet there are occasions in which actors with disabilities are given a chance – at the moment the great controversy is about Bryan Cranston’s role as a quadriplegic man in The Upside alongside Kevin Hart, and considering he spent five years working with RJ Mitte as one of the few leading roles as a disabled actor, he should perhaps be more mindful.

One of the reasons given, and thrown at the argument for Trans actors too, is that there are no bankable disabled actors, and that’s fair. The most high profile deaf actress is Marlee Matlin, academy award winner for Children of a Lesser God, but she is not a household name – despite co-starring in the progressive and very good Switched at Birth (all deaf characters were played by deaf actors).

Similarly, Robert David Hall is a double amputee and third-degree burns victim, but is perhaps best known for playing loveable Medical Examiner Dr Al Robbins on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation for fifteen years. Peter Dinklage and Academy Award nominee Linda Hunt have both made names for themselves in cinema, finding huge popularity on TV – Dinklage with Game of Thrones and Hunt with NCIS: New Orleans (though most people will know her for Kindergarten Cop). In fact, it’s TV where diversity is less of an issue – Liz Carr is best known for her role in Silent Witness, and nearly all Ryan Murphy shows feature actual disabled characters played by actors with the same disability – take Lauren Potter of Glee fame, perhaps one go the show’s MVPs, as Becky Jackson she not only makes for a brilliant actress but a character that enables empathy and better understanding of Down Syndrome.

It seems that cinema is much more reluctant to cast disabled actors in those roles, be them big or small. In an age where films do not need to be headlined by big actors, it seems strange that instead of casting actors who fit the physical need, they are suppressing the needs of an entire sub-set of society. Two of the biggest disabled movie stars became disabled after reaching fame – the late Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox, – making it a question of an unwillingness to cast disabled actors.

Perhaps most radically bost in recent years was John Krasinski’s horror hit A Quiet Place cast rising actress Millicent Simmonds as the deaf daughter Regan, and her inclusion proves not only that it’s possible to be a positive influence and a hit but that it can be vital. In interviews, Krasinski revealed that Simmonds suggested the rhythm of the argument between her character and Krasinski’s as well as his final line in the film which proves the most heartbreaking. Her insight into how it is to be deaf adds nuance and layers to the role and isn’t just someone pretending.

A Quiet Place

It begs a question, in the days since black-face was thrown out for insensitivity, why is it still so hard for people to understand that people who are different often feel ignored and suppressed, and have yet to have their chance to stand tall and lead a film. If the industry is solely based on making money – which is the lame excuse always given – then why would the industry continue to bankroll terrible manga movies considering they keep tanking at the box office?

The answer is simple: prejudice, and as with all forms, it’s high time it ended.

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