Imagine for a moment this supposed conversation.
Director: I need three actors to play characters in my new film about apartheid in South Africa.
Casting Agent: I think I can get Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lawrence, and Matt Damon.
Director: Are there any actual African actors of color available?
Producer: Well, we auditioned a few, but couldn’t find any that have that charisma you need.*
Director: You’re sure this will work?
Casting Agent: No worries, we do this all the time. We’ll just paint their faces black and show them video clips of Africa so they can act truly authentic. We might even bring in a real South African they can interview to ask some extremely personal questions.
*This was an actual response Glee executive producer Brad Falchuk gave when asked why he cast an able-bodied actor for a role in a wheelchair.
How does that make you feel?
Angry? Disgusted? Confused? Outraged?
Well it should, and yet we have spent decades in blissful ignorance going along with these unheard Hollywood decisions and ergo making it okay to follow this ridiculous logic. Knowingly or not – though in 2016 we’re pretty much out of excuses – we have encouraged and allowed lead after lead to go to white able-bodied actors regardless of silly little character traits like race or gender or physical ability.
Me Before You, a film adaptation of Jojo Moyes’ best-selling novel, undoubtedly had a similar Hollywood sit-down before it cast Sam Claflin, the film’s lead, as paraplegic Will Traynor.
As an actor, Claflin checks all the boxes for male lead: gorgeous, fit, able-bodied, yet his role is that of a man paralyzed from the neck down who has spent most of the past two years inside.
And we’re supposed to believe some untidy long-locks and beard are the only physical downsides of this?
Nope, not buying it.
For a laundry list of reasons, Me Before You, was met with an intense wave of criticism before and after its release in theaters.
Having read the novel, and having really enjoyed it, it was an utter shock to start the movie and feel like I’d been slapped in the face with its complete lack of appropriate empathy or sensitivity.
Here was a movie that took the tragic, complicated story of a man suffering the inescapable everyday consequences of being paralyzed while falling in love with the caretaker trying desperately to change his mind about ending his life, and turned it into a brightly colored Nicholas Sparks wannabe devoid of any emotion.
Don’t get me wrong, the novel is not without its faults or similar criticisms about reinforcing the misconception that a life without able-bodied physical ability is not worth living, but the movie is a step backwards of epic proportions.
Lawrence Carter-Long, an activist born with cerebral palsy, acknowledged the need for more differently-abled actors and realistic stories after he saw Million Dollar Baby, which has a similar ending.
Talking about Me Before You character Will Traynor’s decision to end his life due to his paraplegia he noted, “It dawned on me that that’s probably an unspoken assumption and even an unexamined assumption people have about my life.”
The film, which has been dubbed ‘inspiration porn,’ falls back on the common trope of using a character’s physical or mental limitations only one of two ways in a plotline: tragedy or inspiration.
Liz Jackson, an active member in the ‘disability rights community’ was excited about this film, but then quickly disheartened as she explained, “It’s trickery. You see the movie poster and think ‘hey that person looks like me, I’m going to see it, but then you learn the person killed themselves because of it. That’s the lesson you’re taught.”
The ‘that looks like me,’ cheap ploy seems to have angered many in the differently-abled community, because being in a wheelchair isn’t a one-dimensional lifestyle like Hollywood commonly makes it out to be.
The film sparked a movement online with the trending hashtags, #NotDeadYet, #MeBeforeEuthanasia, #LiveBoldly and #MeBeforeAbleism.
Thousands with various disabilities shared why they weren’t going to allow this movie to speak for their respective community, and that their life was very much worth living.
As Cara Liebowitz, an online advocate with cerebral palsy, said, “The most disturbing part is that this character has no autonomy. He’s infantilized by his parents, who make all the decisions for him, and society. That’s an unrealistic depiction.”
The creators of this movie give us a picture perfect man and make his only ‘flaw’ being paralyzed which is so beyond disrespectful and upsetting it’s hard to know how to begin to unpackage it.
His decision to end his life has only one catalyst, being paraplegic, which fails to acknowledge the depression or anxiety that often stem from his condition as opposed to being the all encompassing reason.
It is also impossible to ignore the blinding whiteness of the cast and high socio-economic standing that surely have made Will’s life a million times easier than say a man in his same circumstance living in poverty with little access to adequate healthcare; and one who most definitely doesn’t have the resources to turn his non-existent family stables into a state-of-the-art annex with round the clock nurses.
Even the nurse, another gorgeous actor, is used to allude to the ‘physical stuff’ as he calls it rather than actually tackling any of it. We never see Will struggle to get dressed or go to the bathroom, not that we necessarily need to, but it seems like such a lame trick to divert our attention from the reality of a situation to a sexy male nurse.
Once again Hollywood is perpetuating the idea that audiences want to see characters who are ‘different,’ but can’t quite swallow anything heavier than white, rich, and good-looking.
We have moved, at a snail-like speed, to finally reach a place where we would cringe at the idea of a white actor dressing in blackface, but for some reason sticking one in a wheelchair equates a ‘powerful’ performance, or entry into ‘serious’ acting.
Of the 176 times the Academy Award for Best Actor/Actress has been awarded, only three differently-abled people have had the honor of receiving one.
Conversely, since 1988 more than half of the 17 winners of the most acclaimed category have won the award by playing a mentally or physically disabled character.
Best Actor winners, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, and most recently Eddie Redmayne’s winning performance in The Theory of Everything, have solidified the long-standing cliche that to win an Oscar there has to be extreme transformation, most often at the expense of those living with an incurable disease or disability.
As one critic noted of Oscar favorites, “people love the transformation – from good looking able-bodied actor, to crippled, tormented, misunderstood person with a disability.”
Though Redmayne, and Best Actress winner of the same year Julianne Moore, used their statuettes to shed light on the respective diseases of their characters (Alzheimer’s and ALS), how has it become so socially acceptable to reward people for pretending to suffer the true hardships of others?
We continuously applaud these famed actors for their ‘authenticity’ and ‘commitment’ to the role.
Redmayne revealed he spent over six-months watching all available interview footage of Stephen Hawking to correctly portray his mannerisms and worked with a speech therapist for The Theory of Everything.
Daniel Day-Lewis spent the entire shoot for My Left Foot in a wheelchair.
Dustin Hoffman spent over seven hours talking to Kim Peek, the inspiration for his character, to learn more about him.
That’s great and all but, “the insurmountable irony of the focus on whether able-bodied actors are ‘convincing’ in disabled roles is that if we were truly concerned with convincing performances, no able-bodied actor would ever have been cast as a disabled character.”
When you sit and think about it, which you should instead of passively accepting the Hollywood choice, it is a gross misrepresentation of an entire group of people to hire actors to mimic physical limitation instead of simply hiring someone actually living that way.
Why hire a hearing-abled actor to learn how to play an ‘authentic’ deaf person, when you could just hire an actual real-life hearing-impaired actor?
Earth to Hollywood – they exist!
In fact, one of only three differently-abled actors to take home an Oscar was Marlee Matlin, deaf since 18-months old.
And that was 30 years ago.
There is clearly a long way to go before movie execs are truly awakened to the inexcusable issue of ‘disability drag,’ but with activists fighting daily for inclusion and equality we have seen some steps in the right direction.