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Why Hollywood often misses the mark when it comes to portraying disability

In the film
In the film "Me Before You," able-bodied actor Sam Claflin plays a wheelchair-bound character. Disability advocates say Hollywood needs to broaden its thinking in this regard.
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The recently released movie, “Me Before You,” has stirred up controversy over the portrayal of the film's leading man, who’d rather not live than be disabled.

The Frame’s John Horn spoke to Jenni Gold, the director of “CinemAbility,” a documentary about how disability has been portrayed in entertainment over the years. An advocate for the community, Gold explained her take on why the leading character in “Me Before You” made so many people in the disability community angry.

Interview Highlights

What, in your opinion, is the issue with portrayal of disability in “Me Before You"?

It’s an old stereotype that has been revisited all too frequently that doesn’t really show what most people with disabilities experience. Now, the argument is, Well, I have known somebody [with a disability] and they wanted to end their lives because they were unhappy. But this is a stereotype that is really tired and it’s surprising that it’s in a mainstream theatrical release film in 2016. Although it’s not that surprising because in 2004 we had an Academy Award winner, “Million Dollar Baby,” which ultimately tells the same story, which is if you’re physically disabled, you’re a quadriplegic, then your life is over. You’re worthless and, in this case, people that you love are better off without you — and that’s very damaging.

Is it your concern that there aren’t a lot of characters that just happen to be disabled that are part of a lot of ensembles and stories?

Sure. I started something called the “Gold Test.” The Gold Test asks whether a whether a work of fiction prominently features a disabled character whose story is not about their disability and whose character is not solely defined by their disability. It’s surprising how many films fail and how many films pass — and it’s not that hard to pass. Even in a film like “Jurassic World,” where you have a scene that’s in basically a theme park, there’s nobody [with a disability] that crosses. I’m sort of fighting for our right to just be eaten by dinosaurs. Stereotyping is horrible, but not even being included is even worse when you’re 20 percent of the population [that has a disability of some sort]. 

Are you also concerned that characters with disabilities are not often played by people with disabilities?

In my film ["CinemAbility"], Jamie Foxx says, “You want to see someone in your own jersey.” And in the film I kind of showed both sides of the question because it’s acting … and obviously there’s economics to the business where you need a star sometimes to make a movie about something significant. However, if you don’t put disabled characters in those little roles and then let the actors who really have those disabilities play those roles, you’ll never get them to star level to where they can carry a film.

When considering a new sitcom like ABC’s “Speechless,” starring Minnie Driver and Micah Fowler, an actor with cerebral palsy who plays a character with the same disability, how significant is it that there is a TV show now about a person with a disability, played by a person with a disability and in a starring role? 

It’s fantastic. Film should be a reflection of who we are and when it’s true, it resonates. And people want to see true stories. When you take a tired stereotype like “Me Before You,” it’s not true. When you take “Speechless,” people are going to respond to it because audiences are smart and they know when something is inherently from a positive and true place.

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