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Acting Disability

October 3, 2017

Isaac Zablocki is the Director of Film Programs at the JCC Manhattan and the Director and co-founder of ReelAbilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival. In this recent article for the Huffington Post, he argues that the film industry needs to work harder to diversify and appropriately include people with disabilities, and compensate for lack of inclusion.

The debate about authentic portrayal of people with disabilities in film is hitting the headlines with the release of a number of major films relating to people with disabilities starring non-disabled actors. This season, we will see Andrew Garfield as Robin Cavendish in Breathe, the story of a man with Polio who became a disability advocate, Bryan Cranston plays a wealthy paraplegic man and his relationship with his aid in the Upside, and already making Oscar waves: Jake Gyllenhaal plays a Boston Marathon bombing victim who lost his legs in Stronger. Disability activists have long been fighting for better inclusion of people with disabilities in film.  The disability community is the most underrepresented minority in film and television, specifically, and in the population, generally. Actors with disabilities are rarely cast in roles, even when there is a role for a person with a disability, it will likely be taken by an actor looking to be highlighted during the award season. 

One of the highlights of this past March’s ReelAbilities Film Festival was an industry event aimed at discussing authenticity and the inclusion of people with disabilities in film and television. The event, which took place at JCC Manhattan, included some high-profile names and other up-and-comers, including: William H. Macy, RJ Mitte, Danny Woodburn, Maysoon Zayid, producer Mary-Kay Cook (The View From Tall, which was premiered after the panel), some major casting agents and more. The event was co-presented with SAG-AFTRA, Inclusion in the Arts, and The Ruderman Family Foundation, who are all active in creating more diversity and inclusion in media. What started as a discussion showcasing positive examples of how the film industry can become more inclusive erupted into one of the more thought provoking debates revolving around acting and minority culture. ReelAbilities Film Festival has highlighted the lack of inclusion many times; however, where the panel conversation really got interesting was on the topic of non-disabled actors playing people with disabilities.

This is a very layered and complex issue. For some minorities, it would be unthinkable for an actor not from that minority to play them in this day and age. William H. Macy, for his part, took a different position and argued, possibly paraphrasing Laurence Olivier’s supposed instruction to Dustin Hoffman: “It’s called acting.” You do not have to actually be that person, you have to act like that person — that’s what actors do!

Can a truly authentic portrayal of a person with a disability be presented by someone without one? Maysoon Zayid, an Arab-American comedian and actress with cerebral palsy argued that it could not. The experience of a person with Cerebral Palsy is so specific, Zayid argued, that it could not be authentically mimicked. She further challenged Macy with the ultimate test: “Would you play Michelle Obama?” After some thought, Macy argued that, if he could, he would.

In a perfect world, any actor should be able to play anyone. The trouble is, the disability community is so underserved, that any opportunity for actors with a disability to get a part should be made available to them. There is a need for some leveling of the playing field, with a form of affirmative action. But we could aim even higher. Actors with disabilities should not only play roles meant for people with disabilities. They should be cast in any role. “It is called acting” and many of these actors can play anyone, if given the chance.

Among the many inclusive aspects of this year’s ReelAbilities, the festival was proud to showcase a large majority of films starring actors with disabilities. The festival did not have to sacrifice quality to achieve this goal, and in fact flaunted its best collection of films to date sharing the lives and stories of people with different abilities. Beyond the events and conversations that followed and enhanced the festival, audiences adored the films more than ever. Sadly, only one feature narrative film was American. It seems, perhaps, that more films coming out of Europe have authentic portrayals. One highlight is Kills on Wheels, a celebrated Hungarian feature which opens this month in theaters. Beyond being a fantastic film about to young men with disabilities who get messed up with an assassin, the thriller boasts two lead actors who are actually with disabilities.

ReelAbilities has joined a movement fighting to put this minority in the spotlight. In many ways, inclusion starts in film and media. If we do not see people with disabilities in our entertainment, we will also have trouble envisioning them appropriately in our community. Furthermore, if we do not see appropriate depictions of people with disabilities, the public will only see disabilities as the hero or villain stock types Hollywood often presents or at best, inauthentic portrayals. For some, the only recognized depiction of autism is Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man — far from a representative character. That is why ReelAbilities selects films that push the envelope in terms of their depiction of disability. ReelAbilities seeks out new and different visions of the lives of people with disabilities that still make good drama. Some might argue that authentic portrayal might even make for better drama.

The festival constantly proclaims that our favorite ReelAbilities films are not the ones “about” disability but rather, the ones that happen to include disability. If we want to see more representation of people with disabilities on screen, we need to look beyond having them play disability, but rather being a normal part of society and being cast in everyday roles.

There is a full spectrum of people with disabilities and all come with diverse opinions. But regardless of the approach, the playing field is not leveled and needs to become accessible. If you mention disabilities, doors often close instead of open. We need to work harder to diversify and appropriately include people with disabilities and even compensate for the lack of inclusion.

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