Friday, January 19, 2018

Don't Worry, We Won't Get Cast for the Part

Today a film titled “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” premieres at Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Joaquin Phoenix, the film tells the true story of irreverent quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan, who passed away in 2010, and is based on Callahan's memoir of the same title. Although the film has not yet been screened for a major audience, the decision to cast Phoenix, who does not appear to have a significant physical disability (at least not a spinal cord injury), in the role of the disabled Callahan has already garnered the film some notoriety within the disability community.

The Callahan cartoon his memoir borrowed its title from: a law enforcement posse finds an abandoned wheelchair in the desert; the caption reads, “Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot.”

While this preemptive controversy may seem misguided, it is rooted in a sound decades-long struggle for improved disability representation in the film industry. That is to say, “Don’t Worry” did not arrive in a vacuum where disability marginalization has been eradicated and the everything-offends-me-now generation eagerly waited to exclaim, “I'm offended!” Rather it is the latest installment in an industry that routinely casts non-disabled actors and actresses to portray disabled characters (“Breathe,” “Stronger,” “The Shape of Water,” to name three big films from 2017 alone), bestows its highest honors upon those actors, relies on tired disability tropes, and even denies disability as an underrepresented minority group; this cultural milieu, of which “Don't Worry” is a small piece, is the real problem.

The movie poster for “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot”

Whenever a film like “Don’t Worry” comes out, major figures and organizations in the disability community draw attention to the above issues and inevitably prompt a multitude of social media users to climb upon their soapboxes and make snarky comments like, “it's called ACTING for a reason” and “talk about first world problems” and “aren't there more pressing issues for disabled people?” Here’s the thing these commenters can’t seem to grasp: disabled actors can't get non-disabled roles, and they can't get disabled roles. Essentially what the film industry is communicating to people with disabilities is, you are not allowed to act. You are not welcome to participate. In other industries this would be called employment discrimination; in Hollywood it’s just the way things are.

Are we saying that directors must cast a disabled actor or actress in every movie they make, unless they want to be sued? Or that the best actor trying out for a role should be ignored in favor of the disabled actor who is just not very good? Of course not. And I suppose it is possible that the creative team behind “Don’t Worry” actually did audition actors with disabilities and/or hire people with disabilities to work on the film; only the filmmakers can tell you that. What I can say, however, is we have been waiting a long time for accurate representation, and we have a right to be angry as film after film is produced in which non-disabled people speak for us, act for us, or tell us who we are. If you want us to stop protesting, then include us in the conversation, take a risk by casting an unknown disabled actor the same way you would a non-disabled one, find a screenplay that dares to show disability like it is, provide a reasonable accommodation that may cause you to stretch but not break.

All this in mind, I can't help but still feel excited for Callahan, one of my greatest heroes, to receive the big screen biopic treatment he deserves. And if the film is truly in sync with Callahan’s spirit, it will steer clear of inspiration porn and melodrama, because Callahan spent his career trying to dismantle narrow perceptions of people with disabilities. In his own words, he was “fed up with people who presume to speak for the disabled. All the pity and the patronizing. That’s what is truly detestable.” With or without a disabled actor in the role, I think the fact his story is even being told is a sign of progress. And I hope it's a good movie.


Here's the trailer:


2 comments:

  1. In my experience, I've just had to do things such as self-publish books and self-produce records. The new camera technologies would seem to make filmmaking more affordable to a disabled auteur, if not any easier for someone with major physical and/or mental limitations. But, it seems as if major creative breaks such as a plumb film role or major book deal almost never come easy for unknowns, disabled or not.

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    1. Good point, and I think disabled artists are starting to create and distribute works on their own, which is really the best way to ensure that people with disabilities are portrayed accurately. I also agree that it's difficult for unknowns of any identity to break through; my point is that ideally the process of gaining recognition should not be drastically different for disabled people as it is for non-disabled people. The reality is that every big-name actor or actress we see in movies was once completely unknown, and they ultimately gained recognition because a filmmaker took a risk in casting them.

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