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 The interviews may be a bit old, but that doesn’t make the film itself outdated.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.