With ‘CODA’s’ Oscars, Authentic Representation in Hollywood Takes a Huge Step Forward (Guest Column)

CODA, Troy Kotsur, 2021. © Apple TV+ / Courtesy Everett Collection
©Apple TV/Courtesy Everett Coll

There were several beautiful, gratifying moments at the 94th Academy Awards. But you would not necessarily know that by watching the viral videos circulating social media that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the ceremony, which focus on one particular distasteful incident.

Today, it is time to let the dust settle on the so-called “slap heard around the world” and shift the conversation to “CODA,” enabling this year’s Best Picture winner to receive the attention and accolades it deserves.

The narrative surrounding the success of “CODA” — which also took home Oscars for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Troy Kotsur) and Best Adapted Screenplay — encompasses much more than initially meets the eye. It is a story of advocacy, not just filmmaking. And it is a story of years of behind-the-scenes efforts by individuals who were not directly involved with the production.

“CODA’s” trio of Academy Awards embody the much-needed progress that has been made in recent years in the movement towards greater inclusion of people with disabilities in Hollywood. By casting Kotsur as Frank Rossi, Marlee Matlin as Jackie Rossi, and Daniel Durant as Leo Rossi, “CODA” implemented the practice of authentic representation — casting actors with disabilities in roles that portray the same disabilities they have in real life. Simultaneously, “CODA’s” historic night serves as a clarion call not only for Hollywood, but for all of society on the importance of reinforcing the entertainment industry’s pro-social choices and advocating for further advancement.

At its core, “CODA” is the heartfelt story of children of adults who are deaf, giving viewers a rare glimpse into what life is like in a family in which some members are able to hear and others are not, and the complexities associated with navigating that complex situation. On its own, this subject matter for an Oscar-winning motion picture is unprecedented. Yet the real magic of “CODA” lies in the events that occurred before the movie was filmed.

For decades, it was not nearly a foregone conclusion that talented actors who are deaf, such as “CODA’s” Kotsur, Matlin, and Durant, would be cast in leading roles or any roles at all. It was not even a given that they would receive an audition. Yet “CODA’s” Oscars mean that mean that members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — those who vote for the Oscar winners — will be far more in tune with the issue of authentic representation in the years to come. More importantly, in the short- and long-term future, Hollywood’s decision-makers will likely have increased motivated to expand opportunities for actors with disabilities.

The growing authentic representation movement corrects a blatant historical injustice in the entertainment industry. Indeed, history is unfolding before our eyes, and it began unfolding long before the night of the 94th Academy Awards. A groundbreaking study conducted in 2016 by the Ruderman Family Foundation, the organization that I lead, discovered that an astonishing 95% of top show characters with disabilities on TV were played by actors without disabilities. According to our subsequent research, there was a 7% increase in the number of characters with disabilities portrayed authentically by an actor with the same disability from 2016 to 2018. While this progress is encouraging, there is much more work to be done, and “CODA’s” Oscars must serve as a catalyst for continued change.

Just one month before winning his Oscar, “CODA’s” Kotsur secured a SAG Award for outstanding performance by a male actor, becoming the first actor who is deaf to claim an individual prize in the history of the latter award show. Now, he is just the second actor who is deaf to win an Academy Award. The first was his “CODA” co-star Matlin, who won Best Actress for her role in “Children of a Lesser God” in 1987.

Notably, Matlin refused to star in “CODA” unless other actors with hearing disabilities were cast. Her principled stand paid off, not just for the actors and the film, but for the industry as a whole.

Matlin’s story intersects with the story of my foundation — specifically, our role at the forefront of a movement to enhance inclusivity and authenticity within Hollywood. Over the last three years, we have spearheaded advocacy efforts that have prompted four major Hollywood studios — CBS Entertainment, NBCUniversal, Paramount Pictures, and Sony Pictures Entertainment — to adopt guidelines committing to audition actors with disabilities for studio productions.

In addition to garnering the support of major studios, the foundation also works with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences themselves to promote more opportunities for people with disabilities in the industry, most notably through a recent $1 million grant which helps the Academy champion new perspectives on filmmaking and film history, as well as an accessible and equitable experience for audiences of all backgrounds. And in 2019, we recruited the support of a host of A-list actors and directors to sign a pledge which called on studio, production, and network executives to commit to creating more opportunities for people with disabilities.

“CODA’s” Oscars represent the latest and arguably the greatest milestone in the journey towards authentic representation becoming the rule and not the exception in Hollywood. However, as proud advocates in the journey, the Ruderman Family Foundation and our partners, along with other organizations dedicated to this issue, know that this work is far from done. We will not rest on our laurels. It is incumbent upon the entertainment industry and the general public to view “CODA’s” awards not as the climax of the authentic representation movement, but as another step along the ongoing road to enduring, systemic change.

Jay Ruderman is President of the Ruderman Family Foundation.