Movie Review – CinemAbility: The Art of Inclusion

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From the saintly, asexual disabled women who get rewarded with a medical cure by the end of the movie (as in City Lights) to the vengeful, recently disabled, villainous men who want to take their anger out on the world (like Dennis Hopper's cop turned bus bomber in Speed), disability stereotypes have become ingrained in our culture throughout film history.

And while that doesn't of course prevent any of the films mentioned from being classics in their own right, when these and other stereotypes – whether coded or more overt – are returned to again and again on the big or small screen, the idea that they're true gets reinforced in people's minds, even if the viewer isn't fully aware of it.

A subject close to my heart, not only as a disabled woman but also as a film major who intended to make it my thesis in graduate school, in this eye-opening documentary (which should be mandatory viewing for those pursuing a degree in Media Studies), director Jenni Gold gives a fascinating overview of the subject of disability onscreen.

Chronicling the evolution of disabled character driven storytelling over roughly 120 years of cinema (and later, television), we discover how much has changed as well as how much remains the same. Additionally, Gold looks at the role that representation plays in legislation as – with the increase of more positive and diverse portrayals post-Vietnam – the Americans With Disabilities Act was finally signed into law by President Bush in 1990.

Reminiscent of a terrific small screen documentary that wouldn't be out of place on TCM, given not only its subject matter but also its slightly retro approach, CinemAbility: The Art of Inclusion is hosted and narrated by one of the film's producers, Jane Seymour and features interviews with a number of famous faces such as Geena Davis, Ben Affleck, Jamie Foxx, and William H. Macy.

Boasting a fascinating selection of film clips and some great analysis by Martin F. Norden, the author of a book I'd highly recommend on the subject (The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies), the Emmy winning Gold covers a lot of ground, especially in CinemAbility's powerful look at pre-World War II cinema.

From Thomas Edison's The Fake Beggar (which Eddie Murphy paid homage to in Trading Places) and Tod Browning's ouevre from his campy Lon Chaney collaborations to Freaks as well as the complex Golden Rule coded metaphorical morality of Frankenstein up through The Wizard of Oz, there's a lot to process.

And much like the strides made in portrayals post Vietnam, we received what is perhaps our earliest fully three-dimensional disabled character in the form of a WWII vet (played by real WWII vet Harold Russell) in director William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives.

Receiving both an honorary Oscar "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans" as well as a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for the role, Russell's earnest portrayal in the film (which is not without some controversy given Wyler's decision to limit Russell's offscreen independence onscreen) helped usher in decades of new disabled characters on screens both big and small.

From The Miracle Worker to Wait Until Dark at the movies as well as Miss Susan and Ironside on television, viewers were finally starting to see characters whose disabilities were just one aspect of who they were vs. their sole definition in the '50s and '60s.

And although Russell's Oscar success might've also inadvertently led to the ongoing debate surrounding disabled characters being especially attractive for able-bodied actors to play due to their awards bait potential (considering how many bring home Oscars in films from Coming Home to Ray), it still remains that exceptionally rare instance when a disabled actor was cast in a disabled part.

However, there is a heartbreaking follow-up to the universal acclaim for Russell when Marlee Matlin's well-deserved Academy Award win for her powerful turn in Children of a Lesser God was dismissed in the press in 1987 as “a sympathy vote.” Adding insult to injury, when she worked hard to speak the names of the Best Actor nominees the following year while presenting the award to its ultimate winner Michael Douglas, she was accused of betraying the deaf community.

While the sympathy vote write-off is perhaps indicative of a gender double standard, this isn't explored in the film, which already has so much to cover given the complexity, intertextuality, and intersectionality of its subject that it could've led to a multi-part Ken Burns style documentary series.

And with so much on its mind from not only the depiction of disabled characters on film and TV as well as by disabled performers – before delving into the need for more opportunities behind the scenes as well as working in civil rights issues and comparisons to the strides made by African-Americans and the LGBTQ community – the otherwise outstanding doc begins to lose focus.

Jumping around in topic and tone in its last half hour, CinemAbility's talking heads discuss various aspects of on and offscreen portrayals and their reactions to everything from Million Dollar Baby to the depiction of disability based humor.

Needless to say, this doesn't flow very well and while it's all very interesting, the meandering final section of the documentary isn't nearly as solid as the stellar, film school worthy tour of disability onscreen in the first half of the twentieth century which opened Gold's work.

Ambitious, necessary, and long overdue in our cultural conversation, in the end, having too much to say is always preferable to too little. However, because of the limited format of a feature length film (as opposed to say, a five part series on issues such as: stereotypes and depictions, genre approaches, approaching role as an actor, TV vs film, and inclusion in the industry), I think Gold's subject is better served with more analysis and cinematic examples than occasionally repetitive opinions from the interviewees.

Yet, despite that, by covering so much territory, it's bound to not only inspire vital post-film discussion but also cause viewers – both disabled and able-bodied alike – to consider some of their favorite films in a new light.

A crucial jumping off point to greater study, CinemAbility is a fast-moving, funny, and frequently surprising documentary that illustrates in both its examples and interviews, how much our culture benefits when we see people from all different walks of life represented onscreen, including those that might not walk but don't have to be psychopaths, helpless, or superheroes to be fascinating in their own right.

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