Without question, there’s something about storytelling that connects with audiences in a visceral way. A good story, no matter the medium, enables readers, listeners, or viewers to go on journeys of incredible fantasy or to observe moments of historical, even cultural, significance. Though the technology for storytelling’s greatly improved over the years, representation has not necessarily kept up, especially for disabled audiences. Frequently portrayed as either an aggressive villain or child-like innocent, the disabled are rarely presented as anything more than a stereotype, demonstrating a true lack of understanding of the members of this particular community as multifaceted individuals. While it could be argued that entertainment is not a machine built for social change, but one that reflects society back on itself, there’s another argument which states that entertainment is a responsible party in actively shaping society’s view of itself and must take thoughtful, immediate action in adapting its stories to reflect that culpability. While documentary CinemAbility: The Art of Inclusion doesn’t provide specific answers to either side of the debate, director Jenni Gold presents a well-informed argument for inclusion that demonstrates how simultaneously simple and complicated the task is.
Pulling from interviews with actors like Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God), Jamie Foxx (Ray), Kyle MacLachlan (Desperate Housewives), Daryl Mitchell (NCIS: New Orleans), Robert David Hall (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation), producers Suzanne Lyons (Time Toys) and Garry Marshall (The Princess Diaries), director Peter Farrelly (Me, Myself & Irene), as well as many others in front of and behind the camera, director Jenni Gold and co-writer Samuel W. Reed explore the complicated relationship which exists between the connection of perception of disability as presented through broadcast entertainment and the reality of disability. For some, this boils down to the truth of the performance versus the truth of the actor, while others argue that the actor, regardless of disability or not, is equally important to conveying how audiences, and therefore society, accepts or rejects those with some form of disability. Hosted by Jane Seymour (Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman), CinemAbility examines and dissects representation in all the ways it’s been depicted going back to the beginning of moving pictures and advancing to the modern era.
CinemAbility primarily functions as a history lesson on broadcast entertainment. Beginning in the early days of Edison’s short films and leading up to televisions programs like Glee and Speechless, Seymour walks the audience through the timeline of productions and how they integrated disability into their narratives. On the one hand, you have director Tod Browning, who made several films with Lon Chaney, an actor well known for his willingness to go extra lengths to appear disabled. Together, they made several films together like 1927’s The Unknown where Chaney played an armless circus performer. This, CinemAbility stresses, is a film wherein a talented performer gives their all to tell a heart-wrenching story of desire, which audiences loved. In 1932, however, Browning released his most infamous film, Freaks, which featured disabled performers. Audiences detested it. One argument for the reception was that audiences don’t mind when an able-bodied actor portrays disability because, subconsciously, the audience knows the actor is fine. It’d be easy to balk at a statement like this except for the now widely accepted belief that an actor who portrays a character with some form of disability – physical or mental – must have their performance recognized as exceptional.
Where CinemAbility really gets interesting is when talent in front of and behind the camera begin to dissect and examine the history of representation. It quickly becomes clear that there is no definition, no guidelines, on what proper representation is and isn’t. There’s a complexity presented which should be obvious, yet isn’t. In one case, a fantastic discussion arises around the ending of Million Dollar Baby after Hilary Swank’s Maggie Fitzgerald finds herself paralyzed. Writer/actor Jim Troesh and actor Danny Murphy offer personal perspectives as paralyzed individuals who went through similar struggles as Million Dollar Baby’s Fitzgerald. Along with thoughts from director/actor Clint Eastwood taken from separate documentary The Eastwood Factor, all weigh in on the controversial ending to the film. Troesh shares with the audience how, like Fitzgerald, he contemplated suicide, making the ending of the film authentic to his own experience; whereas Murphy found it aggravating to the point of near-insulting, believing it to be disingenuous to his own experience. In another example, Academy Award winning deaf actress Marlee Matlin speaks of her experience at the 1988 Academy Awards when, in the act of presenting the Best Actor category, she decided to speak the names instead of just signing. To her, she explains, it was something she did for herself to demonstrate that being deaf is not a limitation on her abilities. However, it was seen by many as an insult to the deaf community, a sign of her leaning toward ablest approval. Society at large tends to view the disabled through a lens of either fear or sympathy, looking to them to be paragons of evil or good, and the stories the entertainment industry tells tend to support that. However, as CinemAbility explores, when audiences recognize the humanity of the people, recognize that they are the same as anyone else, facing complex issues of access and identity, then perhaps clear, accurate representation will follow.
Though Gold makes no explicit claims in one direction or the other over what’s the “correct way” for representation to occur, she does make it clear that representation must occur in order for the art to be authentic in its storytelling. Audiences who will seek out CinemAbility are the one already invested in the industry. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the audience will be receptive to the message; but, writers, casting directors, producers, and directors – all the individuals involved in the creation process – would be well-served to watch CinemAbility because they are the ones in positions to make the most changes. General audiences outside of the industry benefit the most from becoming more aware of the issues present in cinema related to disability representation to become more aware of what they’re watching.
Representation matters. Period. Full stop. This isn’t an issue of “woke” or not, it’s a truth that’s been in front of audiences since the early days of moving pictures. Take the 1915 D. W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation which presented slaves as an evil the white man must control or expunge. So great was its influence in spreading the notion that Blacks are less than to Whites, it’s widely believed to be the inspirational catalyst for the Klu Klux Klan. Going back further, the 1897 Thomas Edison silent film The Fake Beggar which saw an able-bodied person pretending to be disabled in order to scam people for money, setting the stage for the homeless, scammer stereotype seen in films ever since. Does the past seem irrelevant? Then look no further than hit animated Netflix program BoJack Horseman in which a main character – Diane Nguyen (voiced by Alison Brie) – is a character of Vietnamese descent, a character whose heritage is a source of several plot developments over the seasons, yet voiced by a Caucasian actor. While it may not seem like a large issue since the show is animated and Brie is an exceptional actress, even BoJack creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg recognizes that the performance lacks an internal truth that an actor of the correct nationality would bring. Each of these examples, past and present, typify the larger issue CinemAbility: The Art of Inclusion implores its audience to acknowledge that, more than anything, the disabled are just as capable as able-bodied. That the stories we tell are more authentic when representation is honest rather than some kind of glorified depiction.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.