Voices: Oscar contender CODA is only halfway there when it comes to representation

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Disability is catnip for the Oscars. Between 1988 and 2019, Variety reported that a third of lead actor winners were portraying a character with a disability – from Dustin Hoffman who won in 1989 for Rain Man, to Eddie Redmayne who picked up his golden statuette in 2015 for The Theory Of Everything.

They were all in one way or another engaged in what those of us who actually live with a disability sometimes refer to as “cripping up”.

By contrast, there have been just two winning actors with actual disabilities in the 91-year history of the awards. Harold Russell, who lost his hands in the Second World War, received a nod for his supporting role in 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives, despite being a non-professional actor, while Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, took home the honours for Children of a Lesser God in 1987. She was also at the time the youngest recipient of the award.

Matlin is one of the stars of CODA, a fancied contender in this year’s awards season. It is currently available for streaming on Apple TV Plus. CODA stands for “child of deaf adults” and all the deaf adults in the film are portrayed by deaf actors. But Matlin, onboard from the beginning, had to threaten to quit to make it happen after the film’s financiers initially baulked.

This is an all too familiar story. John Krasinski also had to fight for the casting of deaf actor Millicent Simmonds in A Quiet Place, and was richly rewarded for doing so. The sequel, a rare incidence of a franchise’s second outing coming close to matching the first, was Simmonds’s film even if Emily Blunt got top billing.

So here’s to Matlin for sticking to her guns, and here’s to CODA director Sian Heder for sticking to hers, all the more so given that La Famille Bélier – the French film that it is a remake of – created considerable controversy by not doing the same.

And what do you know, it’s worked for Heder and Matlin, just as it did for Krasinski. The film’s a hit. At this point, you know there’s a but coming. Don't get me wrong, I liked the film. It’s a coming-of-age story about a child of deaf adults – played by Emilia Jones – whose singing while out on the family’s fishing boat gets her discovered by a teacher, leading to a shot at a scholarship to a Boston conservatory.

Where I struggled a bit is that the deaf characters are still ultimately there to frame the story of the able-bodied lead – in this case, the hearing teenager. Yes, I get it, CODAs have stories too. The depiction of the family is in many ways commendable. They swear, they screw, they drink, they fight; each other and others. This is rare for an industry that struggles with the concept of disabled people being, well, people. Especially when it comes to sex.

CODA is leaps and bounds ahead of offensive and/or exploitative films, such as Me Before You, or Come As You Are. But the family is still depicted as depending on their hearing child, which is a source of conflict in the movie. This is discomforting. After all, what did they do before she was born?

Howard Rosenblum, the chief executive of America’s National Association of the Deaf, while recognising that many CODAs interpret for their parents, told USA Today: “American society has changed in many ways, including stronger disability rights that have empowered many deaf adults to rely less on their hearing children as was portrayed in ‘CODA.’”

Jenna Beacom, a deaf writer and sensitivity reader for other authors tweeted that she felt the deaf characters’ competence was “repeatedly minimised for plot purposes”.

Is it too much to ask for more stories that are about disabled characters, portrayed by disabled actors, doing something more than serving as a plot device? Why don’t disabled kids ever get to see themselves, or people they might aspire to become, on screen? Why are these trade-offs – representation, but if you accept the supporting role – necessary?

The British Film Institute recognised that disabled representation was “woefully lacking” in the industry when it launched a “Busting the Bias” weekend of programming at the end of 2021, which sought to showcase disabled talent. And it was right.

The film industry and creative industries generally have made improvements in many areas of representation, but when it comes to disability, they are still a long way behind the curve.

CODA is in some ways a step forward, certainly when compared to the French film which inspired it. And it’s largely deserving of the critical acclaim it has received. But in terms of disabled people’s stories, it’s halfway there. There is still a lot of work to do and a lot of shouting, or signing, to be done to get to where we ought to be.

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