The invisibility of disability on the screen
Published by UnHerd (10th January, 2019)
It is ironic that Bryan Cranston has been forced to defend his right to portray a person with disabilities when promoting his new comedy The Upside, in which he plays a billionaire in a wheelchair. He is, after all, a star who became big enough at the box office to lead a major movie thanks to his charismatic role as a drug-dealing chemistry teacher in Breaking Bad, a series that won deserved credit for casting an actor with cerebral palsy as his son. Yet now he has become the latest Hollywood figure snared in the fierce debate over casting of characters from minorities.
This issue of diversity and representation is an increasingly hot topic. No white actor would dream of playing a black character these days, and we are witnessing a welcome surge in leading roles for female and ethnic minority stars, writers and film-makers. Last year, Scarlett Johansson dropped out of a role playing a transgender man after a backlash that she said, ‘sparked a larger conversation about diversity and representation in film’. Then, last month the award-winning actor Darren Criss declared he would no longer portray gay characters. ‘I won’t be another straight boy taking a gay man’s role,’ he told Bustle.
Yet this contentious issue is most complex when it comes to disabilities. Here is is the most marginalised community in society, particularly those with learning disabilities, so you might presume there would be a sharp focus on doing everything possible to boost its visibility. But the film and television world, for all its self-proclaimed liberalism, has a terrible track record of depicting it on screen. Almost one in five Americans has a disability, yet a study of 900 films found barely one in 20 such characters with speaking parts. Another survey of 17 characters with disabilities in prominent streamed series revealed that only two of the actors themselves had disabilities.
We are hard-pressed to think of a major American actor with a disability; instead, Jake Gyllenhaal’s body is digitally altered by computer to play a double amputee in Stronger, a film about the Boston marathon bombings, and Joaquin Phoenix lands the starring role as a quadriplegic in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. True, bigotry will not be beaten by a few film roles – but movies have massive global influence in determining how we see and shape the world. And when citizens with disabilities look at their screens, they see again and again the reinforcement of exclusion that sees them shunted to the fringe of society and shut out of workplaces.
This is a big issue in Britain too. Nearly one in five people has some form of disability according to official figures, but three years ago the BBC admitted this hefty minority made up just 1.2% of its faces appearing on television. Little wonder the corporation was recently criticised for casting an able-bodied actor in a remake of The Elephant Man – including by Adam Pearson, an actor with the same condition as the central character who was not even given an audition. ‘I would have liked to have gotten a phone call,’ he told LBC, before adding: ‘It’s a systemic problem, not only in the BBC but industry-wide.’
Pearson is absolutely right. But at the same time, these roles give rise to performances that stretch the finest actors – as highlighted by another study that found almost one in six of the Oscars for best male performer were handed out for portrayals of disability or mental illness. And as critics of reserving roles only for minority actors point out, surely acting is about the ability to convincingly portray other people – as was shown so brilliantly by Sir John Hurt in the original version of The Elephant Man.
Cranston defended himself by insisting he had spent time with people with quadriplegia ‘to get to know what they were thinking and how they’ve adjusted in their lives’. He also pointed out, correctly, that there are no actors with disabilities that had sufficient fame to finance and win big audiences for such a film. ‘Are there any actors who have reached any kind of star status to be able to be considered?’ he asked. ‘I think by not coming up with an answer to that is the answer to that. There is a dearth of opportunity for actors with a disability.’
And here lies the key point behind this issue. Like many other sectors, the media has ignored people with disabilities in the debate on diversity. Just look at how the repellent Frankie Boyle, who mocked people with learning disabilities, still wins commissions from the BBC and The Guardian that would have been denied to him rightly if he had made racist gags.
Things are changing slowly, highlighted by shows such as Call The Midwife and Silent Witnessoffering strong roles for actors with disability. Yet the focus should not just be on starring roles, crucial as they are, but on those ordinary characters and presenters who flit across our screens.
I was struck, watching the French police series Spiral a few years back, to see a computer expert played by an actor with dwarfism who did his job for a few moments then disappeared. What was so extraordinary, and wonderful, was that this man’s disability was irrelevant to the role he was playing – a data analyst for the detectives. He was just an ordinary person who happened to have a disability doing an ordinary job – like millions of other people with disabilities living humdrum lives, just like the rest of us. Yet I clocked suddenly how rare it was to see such a character on television.
More people like this should be turning up in everything from cosy sitcoms through to horror films. People with disabilities have been seen too often only as symbols of tragedy or hailed for amazing triumph over adversity. This is why the fight should not simply focus on actors becoming big enough stars to have names on posters and pull audiences, along with all those key roles behind the cameras. We also need to see the butcher chopping beef who happens to have Down’s Syndrome, the barrister taking a brief who is in a wheelchair and the bank clerk at the counter with autism. Only then will we see the full diversity of real life reflected in drama.