Film and TV: Getting Us in the Picture

By |2018-02-22T10:25:39+00:00February 1st, 2018|
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Allen RuckerIn February 1977, the hit CBS sitcom Maude ran an episode in which middle-class, middle-aged liberal Maude Finley, played by Bea Arthur, is forced to confront one of her oldest friends recently stricken by a devastating stroke and in a wheelchair. After tiptoeing around this woman for most of the episode, Maude finally engages her in awkward chitchat. The friend, seeing her blatant uneasiness, confronts Maude with, “I scare you, don’t I?” Maude’s reply: “You scare the hell out of me.”

Cut to February 2018, and tune into the Comedy Central hit series Drunk History, whose premise is simple: A drunk narrator tells you the story of an important historical event and actors reenact that story, lip-syncing their slurry words. The story highlighted here is a seminal moment for the disability rights movement: The first mass sit-in, by 150-plus disabled protesters at a federal building in San Francisco that began on April 5, 1977, and lasted 25 days. Known as the Section 504 protest and led by wheelchair-using activist Judy Heumann — played in the video by wheelchair-using actress Ali Stroker — this comic re-creation is a raucous time, rock-and-roll on loud speakers and revolution in the air. The Black Panthers and rock mavens Jefferson Airplane show up. As our loopy narrator concludes, this was “Woodstock with wheelchairs and medical supplies.”

The distance in tone and substance between these two TV moments denotes the progress of disability inclusion in American media.

You have to take a long view to realize how substantial the progress made over the last 31 years is. According to Anita Hollander, National Chair of the SAG-AFTRA Performers with Disabilities, in the 2016-17 television season more actors with disabilities had regular roles playing more characters with disabilities than in the entire history of the medium. This also held true for people with disabilities showing up in all kinds of roles, big and small. The shows are proliferating: Speechless, The Good Doctor, Atypical, the Saturday morning series, The Inspectors, a brand-new series on Amazon about kids with Down syndrome, Love You More — not to mention features like Stronger and Wonder. These are not one-off, feel-good cameos on TLC. The Good Doctor, about a young medical savant on the autism spectrum, is this fall’s highest-rated new show. Wonder, about a kid with a facial disfigurement, made $70 million in its first week.

Nondisabled Jake Gyllenhaal plays double amp Jeff Bauman in Stronger.

Nondisabled Jake Gyllenhaal plays double amp Jeff Bauman in Stronger.

Characters in wheelchairs have always been the most prominent disabled representatives on TV and in film, for two reasons. They generally aren’t as “scary” to the nondisabled crowd as the stroke survivor in Maude or someone with speech difficulties. And they can easily be played by nondisabled actors, usually box-office draws from Marlon Brando in The Men (1950) to Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July (1988) to the much-maligned Artie in Glee (2009). For years, the joke in Hollywood has been “play someone disabled, win an Oscar.” That has held true right up to Julianne Moore playing a woman with early Alzheimer’s in Still Alice (2014).

There is currently a fervid backlash among Hollywood activists against this “fake” casting, branding it as inauthentic and unfair. The recent movie, Stronger, about the double-amp survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing, Jeff Bauman, is a case in point. The actor, Jake Gyllenhaal, was clearly chosen to play the role because first, he’s an excellent actor, and second, he’s a box office draw. Disability die-hards consider this insulting. Even with the real Jeff Bauman standing right next to him giving him cripple tips, Gyllenhaal doesn’t “know” what it means to be a double amp. More importantly, this kind of substitute casting robs talented, dedicated actors with disabilities of work. To
them, it’s a life or death issue.

This situation is a classic double-bind. There aren’t enough stars with disabilities to carry such films, but if you keep giving these cherry roles to nondisabled actors, how are disabled actors ever to become stars? According to Gail Williamson, the principal agent for actors with disabilities in Hollywood, things are changing, slowly. More disabled actors are being seen for and landing smaller roles, even ones that don’t explicitly call for someone autistic or using a wheelchair. This is a concerted strategy among all committed casting directors to go small and build up. That’s where stars come from.

Current movies starring those in chairs are a mixed bag. Quad provocateur and NEW MOBILITY icon, John Callahan, will be played by actor Joaquin Phoenix in the upcoming 2018 bio-pic, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot. In a recent British release, Breathe, Andrew Garfield plays a man stricken by polio in the late ’50s who beats all odds by designing a wheelchair with a ventilator.

Zoltán Fenyvesi, a real chair user, plays a paraplegic hit man in Kills on Wheels.

Zoltán Fenyvesi, a real chair user, plays a paraplegic hit man in Kills on Wheels.

For a real, genre-busting movie starring folks in chairs — played by folks in chairs — check out the recently-released-in-America Hungarian film, Kills On Wheels, astutely reviewed by Seth McBride in the December issue of NM. Like Snakes on a Plane, the title tells all. This caper about chair-wielding hit men was Hungary’s official entry in the Academy Awards. Made in the ever-popular Tarantino mix of comedy and carnage, the American version, no doubt with nondisabled stars, is probably being plotted as we speak.

The authentic/inauthentic argument will continue to rage in Hollywood for a long time, but look to TV to move the needle faster than movies. Why? Because TV, with its voracious appetite for talent, makes stars, while film, given the cost alone, needs stars. RJ Mitte of Breaking Bad fame really has CP. Micah Fowler of Speechless really uses a wheelchair and has a speech impairment. They are already household faces, if not names, and the pipeline is filling up fast.

Patience, unfortunately, is a bitch.

The co-host of this year’s Media Access Awards, Haben Girma, the first deaf-blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School, succinctly stated why these media representations matter. Girma has never seen or heard a movie in her life. “But just because I can’t see or hear your shows,” she told the film and TV-makers in the audience, “doesn’t mean I am not deeply impacted by them. [These stories] greatly affect how the world perceives me and perceives all of us who are disabled.” She then introduced 95-year-old Hollywood luminary, Norman Lear, the man who produced that Maude episode above, and cast the first actor with a disability as a regular on primetime TV (Geri Jewell, Facts of Life, 1980), and co-created the very same Media Access Awards in 1979 to honor those who shine a light on disability.

When Lear gave Girma a kiss on the cheek, it was as if he were passing the baton of change from the nondisabled visionaries like himself to the new generation of visionaries with disabilities who will now take over and get us all in the picture.

Stay tuned.

The distance in tone and substance between these two TV moments denotes the progress of disability inclusion in American media.