Critique of PBS’s “Best Kept Secret” autism documentary

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In September, 2013, PBS released “Best Kept Secret.” You can check out info around the film at www.pbs.org/pov/bestkeptsecret. The film is now streamable on some paid sites. But I’m not writing this to recommend the film. Because I actually don’t recommend it.

PBS’s brief synopsis: “In ‘Best Kept Secret,’ Janet Mino, who has taught a class of young men for four years, is on an urgent mission. She races against the clock as graduation approaches for her severely autistic minority students. Once they graduate and leave the security of this nurturing place, their options for living independently will be few. Mino must help them find the means to support themselves before they ‘age out’ of the system.”

It’s a great synopsis. The parts of the film that show this story line are well-done and moving. On the PBS site, the film’s producer Danielle DiGiacomo says, “Samantha [Buck] and I chose to tell a story about under-resourced people of color—arguably the most ignored population in the country—with dignity and without sensationalism. I believe we accomplished something more than a straightforward vérité film—a subtle and layered story that manages to touch upon the delicate issues of race, class and disability simply by telling the stories of these characters.”

Here are two points where the filmmakers’ own narrative starts to fall apart: their rationale for making the movie and what the film actually shows. Why Buck and DiGiacomo? They have no relationship to any of the cultural communities shown in the film. And while this quotation says they touch upon race, class, and disability, the rest of the written materials–and worse–the filmed interview with Buck and DiGiacomo on the PBS site reveal a very different story. Race and class are discarded. Disability isn’t discussed as a social construct, a cultural experience, or anything more than personal problems that burden others. It’s odd because Ms. Mino doesn’t seem to view her students that way. And the story that gets the most attention is Ms. Mino’s. I hardly felt as if I met her students. They were presented as one-dimensional, which is so common for people with the intersecting identities these families have.

The Google Hangout conversation below with Leroy Moore (Sins Invalid; Krip-Hop Nation), Jackie Pilgrim (Autism’s Love), and me goes into detail on the above critiques.  We look at this film in light of history, white supremacy, ableism, objectification, and much more. We recorded it earlier in 2014.

This is a valuable conversation because of the participants: a Black, Disabled man; a Black Autistic woman with an Autistic son; and a white, Disabled filmmaker. We don’t sugar coat our thoughts nor gratuitously attack the film or the filmmakers. But we do describe the ways we felt this film reinforced disability as a tragic, pitiable, and yet inspirational personal circumstance divorced from the intersections of gender, race, ethnicity, and poverty. And we state many times in our own words that it ought to be considered unacceptable for someone with Buck’s privilege to come into a community with substantially less privilege, fail to collaborate with that community, and “help” them, as DiGiacomo says, “simply by telling the stories of these characters.” Nothing is simple about this work or the topic. But given how they fail to notice how grossly irresponsible they are as white, middle-class filmmakers who say they have no direct relationship to Autism, Special Education, or communities of color, I suppose maybe they can comfortably say that these topics can be portrayed simply.

Although the documentary came out nearly a year ago, this video response is timely. Five days ago, Gregory Allen Howard rightfully lambasted the all-white team creating the new James Brown biopic in his article  The Whitewashing of James Brown. Meanwhile, Lei Wiley-Mydske provides a powerful critique on the Autism Women’s Network of the documentary called “Sounding the Alarm:  Battling the Autism Epidemic.” She points out in no uncertain terms that, “[i]t’s a film about pity, fear and anger and the terrifying consequences of ableism on Autistic lives….It is a film about exploitation.” I’m grateful for these articles where people speak up about media representations of their non-dominant cultural communities. I’m equally grateful for the opportunity to participate with Leroy and Jackie in airing some of our concerns with “Best Kept Secret.”

The video response has real Closed Captions. (Though I apologize: I wrote the captions to appear at the top of the screen so they don’t block our mouths. But YouTube will only display them at the bottom. If you watch in full screen mode, the video quality isn’t great, but the captions don’t cover anyone!) Click here to read the Best Kept Secret Video Critique Transcript.