- Viknesh Silvalingam
Diversity in film - Disability doesn't mean inability
It's 2020 and we are all knee-deep into the conversation (and rightly so) about diversity in film. A lot of effort has been made by all parties to educate the public on the relevance and need for accurate representation and stories about the LGBTQ community and People Of Color. However, there is one group that we are not including in the conversation. Disabled actors. Are they being failed by an industry that is unwilling and unable to include them? Disability doesn't mean inability! It has been noted in this article by the Washington Post that this community is one of the most underrepresented groups (1*) in the industry.
Please do bear in mind that it is not as if there aren't any actors out there with disabilities. Before I proceed any further, lets back up and clarify what defines "disability." The word “disability” covers a wide range of conditions, from autism to deafness and beyond. Technically, depending on the severity of the disability, a disabled actor can play a non-disabled character. For instance, a deaf actor can play an assassin, like Jason Bourne and the audience wouldn't be able to tell the difference. However, most filmmakers are reluctant to even cast a disabled actor to play a disabled character even when the actor has the same disability as the character, like Samuel L Jackson playing Mr. Glass from Unbreakable. I do understand if the character is able-bodied at some point in the story and a live altering event causes a change in the character's fortune, yes then it makes better sense to cast an actor with no visible disabilities.
Many actors relish the opportunity to play a role with a medical condition because if done right, it could result in critical acclaims. Leonardo Caprio's performance as a mentally impaired boy in " What's Eating Gilbert Grape", thrust the then young budding actor into the limelight or " Margarita with a Straw", a much-celebrated indie film about a bisexual Indian woman with cerebral palsy starring Bollywood actress, Kalki Koechlin. Those are all great performances and the plaudits received are rightfully deserved. Nevertheless, don't you think an actor with such disabilities would have been able to give more nuance and authenticity to the character? A Washington Post article in 2015 (2*) noted that a third of the Best Actor Oscars since 1988 went to actors playing characters with disabilities. And in 2017, IndieWire listed no less than 59 actors nominated for playing disabled characters (3*).
On the flip side, I truly understand as a filmmaker myself, why directors would rather cast an able-bodied actor to play a disabled character. It's much easier to get your instructions across and you can be extra demanding to the actor without having to really worry about his condition causing a mental or physical meltdown. Ofcourse, there is the "minor" concern of the box-office draw. It is common knowledge that an unknown actor playing a prominent role would not pull in the crowds. However, I feel that is narrow-minded thinking, in this day and age. Audiences nowadays are more sophisticated and are inclined to authenticity. RJ Mitte, who played Walter White Junior in the cult series “Breaking Bad” has cerebral palsy. Throughout the time watching the show, I wasn't thinking if the actor was really having that condition or not as I was in the moment. Now imagine if it was a popular actor playing Walter White Junior, it would have probably taken me out of the moment as I know he is acting.
Currently, there is no law forcing productions to cast an actor to match the attributes of the character and rightfully so. As that would open up a can of worms that no one can manage. However, ethically if we are serious to change, like the outcries over Hollywood's whitewashing of characters (4*), why not go all-in? There is enough room for everyone in Film. Let's give the disabled actors the opportunity and they will show us how it's done.