×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘CinemAbility’

Jenni Gold surveys more than 60 members of the Hollywood community about how people with disabilities have been portrayed in (and excluded from) film and TV in this essential, conversation-sparking documentary.

Director:
Jenni Gold
With:
Ben Affleck, Geena Davis, Jamie Foxx, Janis Hirsch, Geri Jewell, William H. Macy, Marlee Matlin, Richard Donner, Jane Seymour (narrator).
Release Date:
Oct 5, 2018

1 hour 37 minutes

First unveiled on the festival circuit in 2012, “CinemAbility” has been around long enough that at least eight of the participants have since died. The interviews may be a bit old, but that doesn’t make the film itself outdated. If anything, the cultural conversation seems to be catching up with director Jenni Gold’s enlightening look at the complicated history of how Hollywood depicts people with disabilities — those once referred to as “handicapped,” a word that, like many of the once-acceptable screen portrayals referenced here, often diminishes individuals who are unfairly pigeonholed by their differences.

In the tradition of “The Celluloid Closet” and “Hollywood Chinese,” which focused on shortcomings in the way LGBT and Chinese-American characters have traditionally been depicted on,screen, the Jane Seymour-hosted “CinemAbility” offers a valuable, wide-ranging survey of how the film and TV industries deal with “otherness” — whether it be based on race, sexual orientation, or virtually any category of physical impairment, from the blind and the deaf to those with dwarfism or Down syndrome, as well as those missing limbs or with limited use of those they have. It helps to see such medical conditions treated in this broader context: Although Hollywood is making progress in terms of casting and inclusion in those other categories (look no further than the backlash against Scarlett Johansson in “Rub and Tug”), it still lags when considering actors with disabilities for roles that could be played by anybody.

Gender parity advocate Geena Davis reminds that the part of Ripley in “Alien” was written for a man, while director Richard Donner recalls that, when casting “Lethal Weapon,” he was completely blindsided by the idea of considering a nonwhite star to play opposite Mel Gibson: “I always think I’m so liberal, but because it wasn’t written on the page, ‘The character is black’ — it was just a detective — I didn’t think of Danny Glover.” Gold, who directed “CinemAbility” from a wheelchair, lets the film’s strongest point go unstated, but it should be said: Though there is no profession on Earth where discrimination is more inextricably tied up in the question of hiring, acting should be the only ability that matters when it comes to casting.

No one in Hollywood goes farther than the Farrelly brothers to incorporate people with disabilities in their films, sometimes in ways that audiences wouldn’t realize and other times using humor to chip away at viewers’ discomfort with such differences. Here, Peter Farrelly gently scolds the industry for its ableist bias, explaining that for most roles, “it doesn’t say in parentheses ‘good hearing’ or ‘excellent eyesight’ or, you know, ‘with no limp’ … but what a casting agent and a director and a producer sees is an able-bodied person.”

And then there’s the question of whom to cast in roles such as “My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown,” where part of the pleasure audiences presumably derive from these films comes in watching an actor of Daniel Day-Lewis’ caliber empathetically embody someone with cerebral palsy. “I don’t have a problem with a non-disabled actor playing a disabled role, because I feel like that is a wonderful challenge for an actor,” says Geri Jewell, who has CP and made television history with her recurring role on “The Facts of Life.”

But many in the disabled community — diverse as it is in terms of both opinions and conditions — disagree with Jewell. In the film, producer Janis Hirsch firmly voices an opinion that’s been gaining momentum: “An able-bodied person in a wheelchair is the same as having a white person in blackface.” Both ideas were parodied in “Tropic Thunder,” a movie that “CinemAbility” dismisses outright, underscoring the importance of “laughing with” (as the Farrellys do) rather than “laughing at” when employing comedy to advance the discussion.

“CinemAbility” makes a convincing case that when Hollywood has developed roles to feature people with disabilities — as when MGM commissioned “The Sign of the Ram” for actress Susan Peters after a hunting accident rendered her paraplegic, or NBC put Raymond Burr in a wheelchair for its widely seen detective series “Ironside” — it has done wonders to shift the public’s consciousness. But it’s equally important to recognize the many ways in which film and television have perpetuated damaging stereotypes about people with disabilities, detailed here by “The Cinema of Isolation” author Martin F. Norden, whose take on classic horror-movie chameleon Lon Chaney’s legacy proves fair and also particularly eye-opening.

“Ray” star Jamie Foxx offers a charitable spin on how confusing this entire conversation can seem for those resistant to the rise and spread of identity politics: “If you look at our society, we’re still learning about everybody. Sometimes it takes a minute for us to shed the ignorance.” The Oscar winner — one of the biggest names in an impressive ensemble of talking heads that ranges from A-list stars to people you’ve almost certainly never heard of — has a personal take on the issue. Not only did such a role (portraying blind soul pioneer Ray Charles) earn Foxx the “serious” acting cred to last a lifetime, but his own enlightenment arises from having a sister, DeOndra Dixon, with Down syndrome.

For those who don’t regularly interact with people with disabilities in their own lives, mass media supply nearly everything they know about conditions different from their own day-to-day experience. Back when Gold was filming most of “CinemAbility,” her big “get” was spending time on the set of Ben Lewin’s groundbreaking “The Sessions.” In one scene, she interviews star William H. Macy while the director walks by on crutches in the background. Some half-dozen years later, Lewin saw two films released this past January (one at Sundance), while Macy fulfilled a pledge made to Gold in “CinemAbility,” incorporating a character with a disability into his most recent directorial effort, “Krystal.” Without forcing any particular conclusions on her viewers, Gold presents an astonishing number of talking points for audiences to consider — though most astonishing is how little most of us have reflected on the issue until now. Might as well start here.

Film Review: 'CinemAbility'

Reviewed online, Los Angeles, Oct. 1, 2018. Running time: 97 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Leomark, Gold Pictures presentation. Producers: Jenni Gold, Jeff Maynard. Executive producers: David F. Alfonso, D. Scott Dobbie, Jeff Maynard, Jim Walchle. Co-producers: Jane Seymor, Sean Michael Arthur, Tracie Fiss.

Crew: Director: Jenni Gold. Writers: Gold, Samuel W. Reed. Camera (color): D. Scott Dobbie. Editor: Chris Lorusso. Music: Erik Lundmark.

With: Ben Affleck, Geena Davis, Jamie Foxx, Janis Hirsch, Geri Jewell, William H. Macy, Marlee Matlin, Richard Donner, Jane Seymour (narrator).

More Film

  • dolittle-DRD_Tsr1Sht_1011_RGB_4_rgb-1

    Robert Downey Jr. Embarks on Perilous Journey in First 'Dolittle' Trailer (Watch)

    Robert Downey Jr. is setting sail with some furry friends in the first trailer for “Dolittle,” Universal Pictures’ reimagining of the classic story about a man who could speak to animals. “We have no choice but to embark on this perilous journey,” he says. Set to a rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” [...]

  • Parasite

    Bong Joon Ho's 'Parasite' Posts Powerful Opening in North America

    Bong Joon-Ho’s dark comedy “Parasite,” which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, has launched with a spectacular $376,264 at three U.S. theaters.  Neon opened “Parasite” at The Landmark and Arclight Hollywood in Los Angeles and at the IFC Center in New York, where it broke the opening record set by 2014’s “Boyhood.” Its per-screen average of [...]

  • Joker Movie

    'Joker' Dominates International Box Office With $124 Million

    “Joker” is showing impressive traction internationally with a second weekend of $123.7 million on 24,149 screens in 79 markets — a holdover decline of just 29%. Joaquin Phoenix’s psychological thriller has totaled $351.2 million outside North America after only 12 days in release. And with $192 million in domestic grosses, “Joker” has now topped $543 [...]

  • Joker

    'Joker' Remains Box Office Ruler With $55 Million

    Joaquin Phoenix is king of the North American box office once again as “Joker” scores an easy victory in its second weekend with $55 million at 4,374 sites. “Joker” dominated a trio of new entries with animated comedy “The Addams Family” leading the rest of pack with $30.3 million at 4,007 venues, topping forecasts. Will [...]

  • French director Bertrand Tavernier attends the

    Bertrand Tavernier on Coppola, Scorsese, Cayatte, Cinema’s Bright Future

    Veteran French director Bertrand Tavernier (“Round Midnight”) – president and director of the Institut Lumière and Lumière Festival, which he co-manages with Cannes’ Thierry Frémaux – has played a pivotal role in restoring classic French films and defending the importance of French directors, such as Claude Autant Lara, Henri Decoin and André Cayatte, who were [...]

  • 'Philharmonia'

    French Series 'Philharmonia' Sells to the U.K., the U.S. and Australia (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Philharmonia,” a French thriller series set in the world of a national orchestra, has been acquired in English-speaking territories from Lagardere Studios Distribution. “Philharmonia,” which was created and co-written by Marine Gacem, has been acquired by First Look Media’s Topic for SVOD rights in the U.S., and Walter Presents for the U.K. and Australia. “Philharmonia” [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content