Disability and Hollywood – The Upside and the Patrick Stewart Solution

It is with deep trepidation that I’m going to wade in on a disability issue that I’m both compelled and repulsed by.  Hollywood…

I have less than zero intention of actually going to see The Upside.  I’m told by people whose opinions I trust that the French film that it rips off, is actually far less of an ableist problem than this one is undoubtedly going to be (and while we’re at it, I also have a rant about how Hollywood should stop needlessly remaking foreign language films), Intouchables I am told makes many more comments on class which in today’s society – especially in the UK, feels more important than ever.  Sadly, the US remake gives us a Trading Places rip off, led by Bryan Cranston who as Imani Barbarin writes, is a deeply problematic ally in his own right, and Kevin Hart, who I personally find about as funny as a root canal…

It once again brings up uncomfortable questions of how the movie industry portrays disability.  How it so rarely gives us any disabled characters with an ounce of nuance, any characters that aren’t either waiting to die rather than live with their disabilities, or alternatively there to be an unremittingly positive point of inspiration for a mildly troubled white, beautiful, middle class protagonist.   How disability narratives are there to be ‘uplifting’ simply because we exist.  This attitude betrays itself in that the French film was called Intouchables – a fairly unsubtle class point, but American execs have updated it to The Upside.  There are many disabled people, myself among them, who won’t go to see this movie in large part due to the title.  Subtext is all very well, but this has all the subtlety of a Donald Trump tweet.

The casting of Cranston however, once again brings up the question that I find the most nigglingly annoying within the disabled community…the question of abled actors playing disabled characters.  I shall spare you much of why I find this so irritating, suffice to say, that getting disabled roles to be filled by disabled actors has a whiff of arranging deckchairs on the Titanic.  It’s tokenism on a more public scale.  I have no problem with abled actors playing disabled characters, I think too many people have made this question of whether an actor shares the traits they’re portraying as a rather ridiculous hill to die on.  I feel mildly ridiculous saying this, and I fear that this is what my argument will be reduced to – but it is after all, acting…

…However, there is more to it than that.  I have no problem with abled actors taking the roles of disabled characters – IF THE INDUSTRY HAD ANY KIND OF SETUP TO ENCOURAGE DISABLED PERFORMERS TO PURSUE THEIR TALENTS.  Can you name a disabled actor?  It’s really difficult to do, I can think of three with any kind of public footprint, and one of those has a disability which those who live with it, very often don’t describe or identify as disabled.  I’ve left the names out of this article, so that you can go away and think if you can name any – answers on a postcard please.  The movie industry’s main problem is not so much one of portrayal – though that is clearly appalling – but one of opportunity.  The movie, theatre and performance industry isn’t welcoming to disabled people who wish to be on stage rather than watching it…it’s why so many disabled performers on TV talent shows do well, genuine talent, mixed with sentimentality and genuine novelty.

This summer visited Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon.  Towards the end of the tour there were a couple of actors giving performances of various scenes and monologues of the bard’s work.  To my genuine surprise, one of them was disabled.  He was kind enough to chat with me afterwards, but part of my need to talk was simply because I was emotionally overwhelmed to see a disabled actor in plain sight.  That does not often happen.  I feel strongly on this one on a personal level.  Coming out of school my best grades were in Drama and Theatre Studies.  It was never ever considered a realistic proposition for me to continue this further.  Not by me, my family, teachers, careers advisers, anyone.  And this was in no small part down to the fact that the best known wheelchair user on TV at the time was Ade Adepitan, best known for a brief BBC ident.  Portrayal matters, but only if it leads to a sense of opportunity.  Without opportunity, any kind of portrayal is tokenism.

And I think the best way for opportunity to be given, is for disabled actors to take on non-disabled roles.  And if this seems ridiculous, let me tell you why it’s not.  Hollywood has already accidentally shown us the way to do this – with Patrick Stewart.  In the X-Men franchise, Stewart plays Professor X, a wheelchair using character whose disability is never explained (at least in the first 3 movies).  So what does that mean?  It means that it is possible for visibly disabled people to take roles where their disability is not simply normalised, but ignored.  One of the great failings that many industries get wrong, is to assume that disability is the foremost part of our story.   This isn’t necessarily so.  Think of your favourite movie.  Now consider how many characters could hypothetically be played by disabled actors.  It’s more than you think, because disability does not have to be explained on screen, in the same way race, gender or sexuality don’t.

Better stories of disability in movies is a vitally important question, but that is for another blog and another rant.  For me, actual representation and opportunity in the industry, means disabled people not necessarily having disability-defined roles.  Until such changes happen, people will continue to be justifiably angry with the likes of Bryan Cranston, for taking the only roles we could realistically be seen in.

10 thoughts on “Disability and Hollywood – The Upside and the Patrick Stewart Solution

  1. Brilliantly put! I particularly like the point about visible disability being ignored – so many people that see disability think that’s all that we are.. but they are so often SO wrong!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi,
    Fantastic post! Very well written! I will follow your blog now. As I told “Crutches and Spice”,I make films starring disabled actors as disabled characters and sometimes as characters not originally written as disabled, here(with open captions and audio descriptions) http://cripvideoproductions.com/astrokeofendurance.php because I noticed this problem years ago and it pissed me off as a person with Cerebral Palsy.

    What disappoints me most about this news story was that the actor is from a series RJ Mitte who has CP, starred in so this actor must have been aware some disabled people would be pissed about him playing this role.

    As a disabled filmmaker myself, like you, I don’t think able bodied actors should be barred from playing disabled characters but disabled actors should have first preference in casting calls so long as they have the skill for playing the character. I think disabled actors play disabled characters more naturally in general.

    That being said:This particular character in “The Upside” seems to have complex medical needs so a less disabled actor would probably be necessary if he were played by a disabled actor. An actor with the same level of disability as this particular character would be really hard to find and there would likely be logistics and safety/health issues with that level of disability. I know from experience that it is not always easy to actually get in contact with disabled actors by a particular deadline and I have been forced to use unusual methods to contact disabled actors that most casting directors probably wouldn’t even remotely think of unless they were disabled. There are professionally trained actors with disabilities such as Gregg Mozgala,Pamela Sabaugh, Anita Hollander, Tim Snoha, Rachel Handler, Jamie Petrone, Micah Fowler, Marlee Matlin, Peter Dinklage, Chris Imbrocisano, David Harrell, and Christine Bruno to name a few. Outside of very few trained actors like these above, a lot of others are NOT connected with actors unions like SAG-AFTRA yet so that may prevent casting directors from using them. There’s a lot of paperwork involved. Accommodations can sometimes not be provided before a deadline runs out etc. So I’m inclined to believe some internal business problem with production did maybe prevent the casting of a disabled actor unfortunately so I think the disabled community should be providing resources to filmmakers and casting directors like I try to through my work, and like Gregg Mozgala is trying to do with the program “Theatre For ALL” in Queens NYC that trains disabled actors. He has a theatre of his own called “The Apothetae” and also acts with “Theater Breaking Through Barriers” and the new “National Disability Theater”. There are a lot more disabled actors in theater than film at the moment. I’m so sorry you were discouraged from doing theater as I was welcomed into theatre programs and adored it.

    Yes! I also think disabled actors should have the chance to audition for characters not originally written as disabled so long as the writer of the work approves it and the disabled actor again has the right skills. The actors in my films would love the chance to audition for more characters that are not so specific to disability. I can think of many sitcom characters that could work as disabled characters. All in all this movie looks better than “Me Before You” from a writing perspective as it is based on the documentary you mentioned, that I heard disability activists gave good reviews to, but from a casting perspective it has the same problem as many disability films. I despised “Me Before You” so I refused to see it in theaters but I saw it online later just so I could make better arguments against its ableism. I suggest seeing “The Upside” after it leaves theaters to see if your thoughts turned out to be correct so you can better make your future points.

    Ultimately I encourage people to make their own content as I have done if they have problems with the media industry and representation of disabled and minorities, not wait for Hollywood to “get it” because I don’t think Hollywood ever will since they are so out of touch. Its up to us! Not Hollywood.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. We like the disabled scientist in Silent Witness. She seems to be scripted as a properly rounded character who is a full team member. I wonder what you think of “The Greatest Showman” and the song, “This is me”? I’m not sure…..it’s influencing a generation of children- my grandchildren love it- but is that for worthwhile reasons?


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