Zuzanna Filipiuk looks at the most recent faux-pas in the representation of disability on screen
In his recent film, The Upside, beloved Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston takes his acting skills to the next level. The film, on the other hand, is not breaking bad at all. In fact, it’s simply playing by the book.
On a freezing January morning, I sat down in an empty cinema ready to be moved, challenged and even angered. Instead, I was just disappointed. The Upside is a redundant and blunt American remake of Intouchables, an acclaimed French production from 2011. This remake epitomises the very difference between telling a story and scamming it for profit. It is just another Hollywood attempt to tell a story about disability without representing disability, instead exploiting it to get an easy cry, a laugh and a link of sympathy with the main character. Yet, the disability is easily forgotten when all able-bodied actors walk down the lavish red carpet in self-congratulation.
Casting a non-disabled actor for the role of Phillip, a businessman with quadriplegia, kindled a flamed argument all over social media. Adam Pearson, an actor and activist, shared his concern on Twitter: “The best actor should ALWAYS get the job, I’m sure we can all universally agree on that. I’m sure we can also agree that casting disabled actors isn’t always possible. What disabled actors are in fact asking for is this [sic] cast the net wider and deeper. Allow us the chance to showcase and develop our skills and together maybe we can find the disabled Bryan Cranston.”
Like Adam Pearson, I also believe that the best actor should always get the role. Casting an actor just because he or she has a disability should never be the case. The problem, however, is that actors with disabilities are not even given many opportunities to audition.
There is something about disability that makes it an attractive and abundant source of stories but is uncomfortable for the society to face without having the screen as a mediator. For this reason, the film industry feels the need to keep disability sealed within the fictional world and out of sight of the public eye. Intouchables, although it didn’t perform better than its American remake in casting a disabled lead, was a genuine and original effort to put disability up on the silver screen. The Upside, however, is only looking to capitalise on the success of its predecessor. Hollywood just keeps clinging to the traditional formula of films about disability – they show the struggle and pain faced by the characters and show them grow towards accepting a new way of living. They show disability as something that has to be overcome but do not bother showing anything beyond that – does the life of a person with a disability offer nothing more?
Many films, such as Me Before You, are guilty of reinforcing the notion that people with disabilities are loveless and undeserving of living. That their disability is the centre of their existence. That there is nothing worth living for if you are “different”, if you’re in a wheelchair, if you’re an amputee and so on.
But it’s important we change this because films have power. Films educate. Films inspire. Films can help you define who you want to be in the future. They are not just entertainment. They are able to influence the dynamics of society by reinforcing, creating or, albeit rarely, challenging stereotypes and prejudices linked to minorities.
Despite the numerous signs of discontent about the lack of diversity in Hollywood, controversies about whitewashing and LGBTQ+ representations keep coming. Amid the discontent, the disabled might well be the most ignored minority. There are many stories about disability but not enough stories with disability. People with disabilities almost never appear on screen without having the story centered around their disability – without making it the only thing that their life is about. Hollywood and many other film industries around the world have been exploiting disability as an easy, or rather lazy, way of winning the audience and earning profit.
According to UNESCO, about 15% of world population has some kind of disability. That is one in seven people. Over one billion people. And according to research carried out at the University of Southern California as part of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, characters with disabilities constitute about 2.5% of all speaking characters.
Hollywood can do better, or actually, Hollywood must do better. I believe that we don’t need roles for the disabled. I believe that we need actors with disabilities to play what would be considered “normal” roles. Then, and only then, will we have proper representation.