Disability Narratives in Film

I recently shared a blog about my opinion of the disabled narrative in TV. Now it’s time for film narrative.

‘The Upside’, starring Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston, follows a disabled gentleman who is quadriplegic in New York. He hires Dell a paroled convict who is trying to get his life on track. Dell joins his care team with forced agreement. The rich white man, okay disabled but, a well-off white man is helping out a poor black man. Okay, it is a beautiful, and true, story told with a lot of comedy that makes you smile, and the disabled person doesn’t die in the end, which is a win for a film about a disabled person, but they really played up to stereotypes. A rich disabled person employs a poor black uneducated man and they help each other be happy. It was a great film, but I also wanted to vomit after watching it. It was excellently done though and, on the face of it, some improvement has obviously happened in terms of the disabled narrative in films, meaning that the disabled person doesn’t die at the end yay! This is a film that’s just as uneasy as the title, but with some actually delightful moments.

‘The Sessions’ is a film from 2012, so it came out during the last decade of when I was growing up and, things were very different then; in some ways more normal than we have it today. Anyway John Hawkes plays Mark, a disabled man who needs an iron lung to breathe. He is a poet and a disabled professional, probably based on Steven Hawkins, but in the creative and social world not the science world. It was a bit cheesy, but most of these kinds of films are so I’ll let them off on that one. Mark falls in love with his carer, which isn’t as common as these films make it seem. Okay, having a carer can be a very special relationship but you don’t tend to fall in love with them. This film has two cases of that narrative. His young pretty female carer at the start, and the nurse/counsellor at the end. My eyes are rolling. In-between those two relationships, he also has a sex therapist, and they fall in love as well. It is a good film. It breaks down the barriers in terms of sex and disability and I really appreciate it for that. Unfortunately he dies at the end. Why do they feel the need to show disabled people dying at the end of films? This film is nothing to do with death. Just because a character is disabled doesn’t mean they have to die. If you compare all of these films about disabled people, most of them die in the end. Imagine if they did that in most films, for no good reason. Like, Love Actually is a good film that’s very popular but would people like it as much if Hugh Grant randomly died at the end for no reason?

‘Breathe’ is another one of these films. Andrew Garfield plays Robbin Cavendish, a man who gets polio as a young man and says ‘I don’t want to just survive, I want to truly live in a big way’. He does live as an inspiration for all. One thing I liked about this film is it was an incredible insight into the equipment that enhances the lives of the disabled. Wheelchairs, ventilators, and all that equipment is always improving. It might be thanks to the needs of disabled people in the old days, that our equipment is used to save your life. So, you’re welcome. Now I know why disabled people get called super human. Another completely vomit-worthy, stereotypical film about a disabled person, but it had some good moments.

Basically, the film industry is miles behind the improvement of disabled narratives on TV, but that’s not really different to any other diversity issue. The film industry has also made very little improvement in the case of disabled people being employed to play disabled roles. I think it’s very distasteful, and disrespectful, to all of the working actors with disabilities who would understand and play the parts just as well, if not better. There are plenty of them looking for work. So shame on the casting producers who chose to cast these actors instead – Eddie Redmayne, Sam Claflin, Andrew Garfield, John Hawkes, Bryan Cranston, and the list goes on… I just hope we see more of an improvement in the future, to reflect the world we actually live in.


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