I’ll admit I’ve never really given much thought about the representation of people with disabilities in Hollywood. It’s never been something that’s ever occurred to me, even when watching films as obvious as Forrest Gump or The Elephant Man, the fact that these movies deal with people with disabilities has honestly never occurred to me.
One of the most interesting aspects, for me as an able-bodied person, about Jenni Gold’s feature documentary CinemAbility: The Art of Inclusion is the way in which is details the different representations of disabled people in the Hollywood studio system throughout history. Starting with the early era of silent movies and progressing right the way through to modern cinema, what was refreshing about the movie is the way in which it doesn’t dwell solely on the negative portrayals.
Taking a far more positive and interesting approach to the material, it details the successful representations of people with disability as much as it does the negative, and it features insightful and pleasant interviews with several different actors working in Hollywood, not just those with disabilities themselves.
Hearing their stories and experiences watching movies, especially the ones that offered them inspiration, is often inspirational in and of itself. When something so simple, like a scene of John Voight struggling to manoeuvre his wheelchair into a house in the movie Coming Home, can becomes such an integral part of someone’s experience watching films and further into their life you really start to consider just how ridiculous it is that we don’t have more representation in mainstream movies.
I’ve always been a believer in the idea that media, and movies and television in particularly, have the power to further push positive change. Films are, as Ben Affleck so clearly puts it in the movie, the collective social wall paper of our society, and the way they represent society does indeed transfer over into the real world.
When we consider how far representation of African America people has come in films and look at modern society we can see that there is a definite improvement (although there’s still a long way to go), so why would it be any different for those with disabilities?
The film makes a clear and precise case for just why it is so important, and by and large it aligns rather well with my own views. To that end I found it rather enjoyable, and there were some interesting looking movies that got name dropped throughout that I was sure to add to my watchlist for later viewing. But it also made me somewhat frustrated, from where I am there isn’t much I can do, and it seems a shame that the Hollywood studio system, even now in 2018, have still not taken this as seriously as they should be.
As a documentary I found it insightful and entertaining, even if it does resort to basic documentary techniques. There’s a slight disconnect between certain elements though. We’re given a presenter who the film randomly and sporadically cuts back to at points that feel odd and not entirely necessary. Oftentimes the talking heads are enough to put forward a clear case and successful people within the industry discussing their thoughts on these films are far more interesting than someone simply relaying facts.
There was one moment, when discussing a disabled character in the show CSI, that felt underutilised – especially considering the people on screen are discussing one particularly moment that the documentary then fails to include in the footage – and I’d wished it had just taken a little bit more time to focus on that.
I also wish it had taken a little bit more time to focus on more modern interpretations of people with disabilities on screen, particularly those played by able-bodied actors, as the issue felt sort of glossed over and somewhat rushed toward the end of the piece, and I’m sure there’s a deeper and more profound discussion to be had over that than the film gives.
But, for all its flaws, it’s a competently made and entertaining documentary dealing with a very real and very important issue facing Hollywood and society. It takes an interesting journey through the course of cinema history, viewed through a lens we don’t often see the subject of these sorts of things, and as a result it’s insightful and in many ways poignant.
Perhaps the most poignant moment in the entire film comes from actor and writer William H Macy. While discussing a film he is currently writing he, rather bluntly, tells us that his movie features no characters with a disability, and when he questions himself as to why the only answer he can come up with is that he didn’t think to. He concludes that that’s what needs to change, and I for one agree.
For anyone with even a passing interest in film this is one that’s worth a watch, and perhaps now that the representation of people with disabilities is starting to get some real light shined on it we can start to move further forward.
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