Critique of CinemAbility documentary trailer

Listen to this post: 

I’m torn over the trailer for “CinemAbility,” a new documentary by disabled director Jenni Gold. The movie explores how disability has been portrayed in films and how people in the industry are now pushing for more realistic and positive portrayals. That sounds downright awesome. I have one caveat: more, if not all, portrayals should be by disabled people themselves. I didn’t hear anyone in the trailer offer that sentiment. Why not? I say down with Crip Drag!

So I’m torn. I want to automatically love a documentary that dives into disability portrayal in the movies, especially when it’s made by someone who experiences disability firsthand. But there are so many non-disabled people crawling all over the trailer that I wonder if this film perpetuates the same old same old: disabled people aren’t capable of the rigors of performing, and non-disabled people are perfectly qualified to talk for disabled people.

Thank goodness Daryl Mitchell (the one black person in the trailer) and Danny Woodburn discussed the intersection of race and disability. And thank goodness Ben Affleck bluntly stated that disabled people aren’t even in the fabric of the entertainment world. But I didn’t need him, of all people, to mansplain that to me. Where was the disabled person recorded saying exactly the same thing? Because someone else must have said that in their interview.

I know a trailer can’t possibly reach into all aspects of a film. But we do expect it to give us the movie’s general vibe. This trailer concerned me. Let me take a moment to say why.

1. Why does this trailer show so many people who don’t publicly identify as being disabled or as people with disabilities? Why were there only a few disabled people speaking for themselves about their experiences?

2. How come when a little person started speaking, the camera cut away multiple times to other movie clips? The clips were relevant. But why were they shown during one of the few disabled people’s interviews?

3. Why are actors with disabilities such as Robert David Hall shown in a way that we can’t see his impairments? I might be in a very small group of people who has never seen CSI. So I didn’t know he had a disability until I Googled him just now. I only bring this up because of point #1. I figured he was one more non-disabled white guy like so many in the trailer based on the visual image I was given. Because the specific point of this movie is to discuss disability portrayal, why does the trailer by default end up portraying him as not having a physical impairment?

4. You hear language such as talking about “a person who is quote-disabled but is in charge of their life.” When can we start saying “a person who is disabled AND is in charge of their life?” Why do they keep putting the word–disabled–in quotation marks? The trailer had just talked about the power of media to change perceptions. Yet how can perceptions be changed when language like this is used? This language reinforces the idea that most people with disabilities are not going to be in charge of their lives. The ones who do are rare and worth mentioning. They are the few who are disabled but in charge.

5. William H. Macy: “We want to get to a place in this world where it’s what you do that counts, it’s what you can accomplish that counts, and we’re not so concerned with how you look or how you get there.”

OK. Let’s stop judging people by their looks and focus on what they can do. Wait. First of all, this assumes that only people with visible or apparent disabilities and assistive equipment are disabled. Not true. Have you seen me? I don’t look disabled. And I most certainly am judged by what I do. (When I’m having a brain injury moment, that judgment can be distinctly negative or harsh. When I’m not having a brain injury moment, sometimes people talk about what an inspiration I am, as if making a 10-minute comedy film about myself is worthy of a Nobel and has never been done before.)

Secondly, in a capitalist society where most of our disabled characters are played by non-disabled people, I wonder how it’s actually progressive to judge people on what they can accomplish. After all, if the industry keeps disabled people out of media, then where are the disabled actors to spotlight what they can accomplish? For too long, directors have felt that we can’t portray ourselves. So we don’t actually get the chance to show you what we can accomplish. And then you want to call it a good thing to judge us on our accomplishments? Keeping us off the silver screen perpetuates the image that we aren’t there because we can’t do the job.

6. Two women with disabilities were shown. Each gave us only one sentence. Compared to the number of sentences spoken by men in the trailer, this should be a little embarrassing. Geena Davis also spoke for fewer than 10 seconds. Earlier this month, she gave a presentation on the lack of gender equality in media, especially media geared to younger folks. She was quoted saying “We don’t have enough interesting female characters. We’re not giving girls enough to aspire to…”.

I imagine this post will ruffle some feathers and seem bitter. Well, I am feeling ruffly. Some of my friends who have had impairments their entire lives have been ruffled for, well, their entire lives. I’ve talked to them about how stressful and confusing it was to grow up with no strong, admirable characters who looked or acted like they do. I had plenty of characters to look up to, as a child with a white, straight, non-disabled body. I’m very late coming to realize, now that I’m disabled, that I no longer see worthwhile characters like me. I hope you will also join me in this realization if you did not already beat me to it.

I understand that the director has a disability, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree with her as a film maker with a different disability. My style is more skeptical and critical. I’m glad this movie was made. At the same time, the next one can go so much further by centering people with disabilities themselves in the conversation and by praising films where disabled people played disabled characters. Or gosh, what about one where disabled people just play characters? That would be very nice too.