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THE SOUND OF SILENCE: disability in cinema

Updated: Apr 8

Silence is the last thing the world will ever hear from me”.

Marlee Matlin

As an industry of the imagination, Hollywood generally prefers to feature, as we say colloquially, young, beautiful, rich and healthy characters rather than old, poor and sick. Without carrying out a scientific content analysis, we can safely say that, relative to their prevalence rate in society, disabled people are indeed under-represented in cinema: this does not mean that the subject is taboo.

Thanks to the mobilization of the people concerned in recent years, we are gradually finding a more realistic representation of what “being disabled” means today. It is also interesting to note that 95% of the roles of disabled characters in cinema are distributed to able-bodied people which generates stereotypical representations far from reality. The question of the representation of disability is therefore heard both in the storytelling of the stories, but also in the choice of those who embody the characters.

Little represented in cinema, it may seem surprising that disabled people have not questioned filmmakers more about our ability to integrate others and ultimately ourselves, in our human dimensions of fragility and vulnerability. Experience it for yourself: What was the last recent film you saw that was somewhat centrally about people with disabilities? Difficult isn't it, even for movie buffs?

So, what was the last one that left an impression on you? The Untouchables 2011 with Omar Sy and François Cluzet? The Eighth Day perhaps by Jaco Van Dormael with Daniel Auteuil and Pascal Duquenne? It was made in 1995! Rain Man by Barry Levinson with Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman? From 1988. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? by Gus Van Sant with Leonardo di Caprio and Johnny Depp, The Elephant Man by David Lynch? 1980! Freaks (The Monstrous Parade) by Tod Browning... 1932! That’s one film every ten years for an annual production of several hundred!

Cinema knows how to mirror major themes of life and major social issues, but on the other hand it shows a more than surprising discretion on the issue of disabilities. How can this be explained?

A cynical answer would be that to play a disabled person is often thought as being a platform to get an award for an actor. Another explanation would be to say that people with disabilities are now integrated at all levels of our society and that we no longer question their visibility because this would no longer require specific questioning, and therefore no film should be particularly dedicated to them.

It is surprising since cinema is essentially based on narrative constructions that appeal to the emotion, dramaturgy, capacities and identification needs of the spectator. And the situation of rejection or, without going so far, the difficulty of integration and recognition, the marginalization, the stigmatization of difference often linked to disability, are they not capable of touching and moving the deep self of every human being? “I am not an animal; I am a human being” the character of Elephant Man shouted to us.

Cinema is also there to focus its lens on our own failings: disabled characters must often demonstrate extraordinary courage, strength, personality or abilities in order to exist and be socially considered.

Let’s focus on films like — Miracle in Alabama by Arthur Penn (1962), Children of A Lesser God by Randa Haines (1986, with Marlee Matlin, a young deaf actress who received an Oscar for her performance), Born on the Fourth of July by Oliver Stone (1989, with Tom Cruise), My Left Foot by Jim Sheridan (1989, with Daniel Day-Lewis), What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Lasse Hallstrôm (1994, with Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio), Coda by Sian Heder (2021 with Emilia Jones and Marlee Matlin) — to witness a positive attitude towards the disabled (or at least towards certain categories of them). It would be naive to believe that their vision alone would be enough to modify the view that the we have on disability:

further animation work to broaden the audience (children) and exchange with spectators (universality) is undoubtedly necessary to achieve a real transformation of their representations and attitudes, and also to integrate more artists with disabilities who would be able to deliver real acting skills that go beyond the simple fact of wanting to win an Oscar, a Bafta, a César, etc. for the role. Duly noted!

Based loosely on the Cursus/Course Le Handicap au Cinéma, Alain Douillet and Michel Condé, Université de Paris Cité

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