Lawrence Carter-Long – Director of Advocacy, Disabilities Network of NYC (2008)

C’mon Hollywood … we dare you to disTHIS!

Think of the term “disability film” and you’re likely to conjure up one of two images: the disabled person who overcomes his/her condition to triumph over adversity or the tragic, and usually bitter, plight of someone struggling with the barriers—be they physical, attitudinal and/or architectural—encountered by disabled folks. The point of view, the gaze—or in some cases—the intrusive glare, is firmly located with nondisabled voyeurs. Rarely do we come across cinema with powerful representations of disabled people, where their condition is a part of the story without consuming it.
All too often, mainstream movies where disability plays a role have become comfortable using nondisabled actors “cripping up” in their roles. Disabled performers, who would be arguably better equipped to embody the experience of living with a particular condition, are largely persona non grata. Why would nondisabled actors be any better at expressing the often harsh reality of life in a world ill-designed for impairment? The list of such casting decisions, however, is extensive: Dustin Hoffman in Rainman, Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump, Daniel Day-Lewis playing Christy Brown in My Left Foot; Sean Penn in I Am Sam, Juliette Lewis in The Other Sister, Javier Bardem’s bitter martyrdom of The Sea Inside, Hillary Swank’s melodramatic turn in Million Dollar snuff film, er, Baby and, most recently, Michael Sheen in Music Within. How long will it be before audiences begin to equate the developmentally disabled caricature of Forrest Gump with Jolson singing Mammy?  Not anytime soon, I’m willing to wager. As the saying goes, “Want an Oscar nomination, play a cripple.” Sadly, almost two decades later there seems to be little of the sensitivity demonstrated by the theatre community when Asian Pacific Americans protested the casting of Caucasian actors in Miss Saigon in 1990 with regard to disability.
The kind of resonance which can only come from experience is also sadly lacking in much of the content as well. Challenging often predictable, two dimensional portrayals of people with disabilities on-screen was one of the main motivations behind the genesis of NYC’s disTHIS! Film Series in 2006.

We started with a seemingly simple, but difficult to realize guiding principle: Could we cultivate an audience for festival-quality movies about disability that did not fall into the tragic/heroic trap many of us had grown tired of? And if we did, what would we show? To answer that question, we came up with the tagline “disability through a whole new lens” and later, “no handkerchief necessary, no heroism required.” I was once asked by a reporter that if our movies were going to be “disability without the diagnosis,” what the heck were we going to screen?  Fair enough. Judging by the selection of movies that managed to obtain general release, he had a valid point. I knew from my own research and from attending the London Disability Arts Forum’s 7th Annual Disability film Festival in 2005 that many quality movies with disability themes are out there, but few platforms exist to screen movies that stray too far from formula.
We started the first year of our monthly series in April 2006, with Aaltra, a brilliant, deadpan dark comedy from Belgium featuring two characters whose sudden, unexpected disabilities prove to be no handicap to their being as selfish, sarcastic or unpleasant as they were prior to acquiring their disabilities.. We followed in May with Born Freak, a challenging Channel 4 documentary featuring disabled actor Mat Fraser that examined the history of disabled performers in an often surprisingly sympathetic view of the “freak show” tradition. Summer brought a stateside documentary How’s Your News?, which chronicles the journeys of a traveling band of disabled reporters as they conduct person-on-the-street interviews with an unsuspecting, nondisabled public. Audiences loved it.  Sundance did not and refused to screen it on the grounds that they were afraid of being seen as “mocking” disabled people. It didn’t seem to matter that the disabled people featured in the movie were also quite proud of their work—as they should be. After airing on Cinemax and being widely distributed by mail order and screening to enthusiastic crowds at other, less squeamish, festivals the News crew now enjoys a cult following and is currently filming a pilot for an MTV series. Brings to mind the adage about success being the sweetest revenge. In July, we were pleased to screen Sixth Happiness again from the U.K., which adeptly avoided clichés about India, disability or sexuality by depicting the tale of a bisexual man with wicked wit and brittle bones. Sex was again on the agenda when F*ck The Disabled, which sends up the often skewed perceptions people tend to have of both gay people and disabled folks was screened in August.

It was around this time I noticed a couple of trends emerging: 1.) our audiences were growing and 2.) the bulk of our screening material was coming from outside the United States.

In fact, of the 14 feature length and short films we screened our first year, only four were from the U.S. and one of those (Freaks—by director Tod Browning—who also directed Bela Lugosi in Dracula) was made in 1932! Sadly, when we celebrated our 2nd anniversary in May 2008, the percentages remained essentially the same.

It’s tough to be patriotic with odds like these. While Hollywood seems content to churn out melodramas which traverse the same ground we’ve all trekked before, the rest of the world seems more inclined to take chances—and in the process—tell more interesting, resonant stories. It gets embarrassing when people ask “Where did you find this?” more often than not I have to reply, “not here.”

The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) and Channel 4 both have training programs and internships for disabled filmmakers. In 2002, the BBC presented What’s Your Problem, a weeklong series of features, shorts, and documentaries with provocative disability themes beyond the traditional clichés. Currently airing on the BBC is The Shooting Party, a reality series where disabled teens are run through the ringer as they learn how to make movies of their own.

As the movies of the Farelly Bros., South Park, and the success of comics like Josh Blue have demonstrated, daring to break outside the mold when depicting disability can be wildly popular. So why aren’t more studios doing it? Where are the initiatives from the so-called major networks: NBC, CBS and ABC? Heck, I’ll even take PBS. Cable, anyone?

The guiding principle behind the disability rights movement is “Nothing About Us Without Us.” While artists have traditionally been on the frontlines of moving and shaking the social order, in terms of both progressive portrayals of disability and the hiring of disabled actors in the United States there has barely been a tremor.

A 2005 study on the employment of performers with disabilities commissioned by the Screen Actors Guild revealed the most frequently encountered obstacles to getting an audition were stereotypical attitudes about disability and only being considered for limited roles. Performers reported the more “obvious” or “visible” the disability, the less likely the actor was to be hired or taken seriously by the creative team.

Therein lies the problem. People are less likely to hire a person with a disability if our attitudes about disability are stuck in the paternalistic notions of the 1950s—that includes industry. But people are unlikely to change their timeworn—and inaccurate—attitudes if they haven’t seen a more realistic, resonant portrayal in the media they read, hear or watch. One informs the other.

In May 2006, the New York Times Style Section recognized disTHIS! for “celebrating unconventional portrayals of the disabled.” Nothing would make me happier than to see our “unconventional” portrayals become the norm. What say you, Hollywood? Are you up for the challenge?

Lawrence Carter-Long is the Director of Advocacy for the DISABILITIES NETWORK OF NYC and curator of the groundbreaking disTHIS! FILM SERIES: disability through a whole new lens. As a media critic/social commentator, he has been featured on CNN (including regular appearances on NANCY GRACE), the NEW YORK TIMES (Style section, above the fold!), NBC’s TODAY SHOW, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO and the BBC, among other regional and local outlets.  He is a producer on WBAI’s LARGEST MINORITY Radio Show, where he reports on disability, culture and community and can currently be seen performing GIMP with Heidi Latsky Dance.

Return to: National Diversity Forum Main Page