Portraying Disability in TV and Film: We Can Do More
Before Ryan Murphy catapulted into fame and became an award-winning mega-producer, he was the brains behind “Glee,” the highly rated TV show on the highs and lows of a high school glee club. “Glee” shone a spotlight LGBTQ character representation through the love story of Kurt and Blaine, which fans followed ardently through six seasons. However, Murphy also had a chance to portray characters with disabilities accurately through the show but missed out on the chance, hiring a well-abled actor to portray Artie, the always positive glee club member who injured his spinal cord due to an accident when he was eight years old.
Fortunately, by the later seasons, Murphy realized he had to make a wrong right, and he did so with the talent competition show inspired by “Glee,” “The Glee Project.” Through this show, a real-life differently abled talented actress, Alyson Mackenzie Stroker, was discovered, moving on as a finalist and even appearing on a few episodes of the hit show. Stroker went on to be a Broadway star, even winning a Best Featured Actress in a Musical at the 2019 Tony Awards for “Oklahoma.” At the same time, Stroker continues to inspire people with different abilities with her involvement in numerous causes, including Women Who Care, which supports United Cerebral Palsy of New York City, of which she is co-chair.
Stroker’s success story is one of the few, however, as Hollywood continues to overlook the talents of differently abled actors and actresses, but the upside is that more people are becoming aware of the problem.
For example, Bryan Cranston, an multi-award-winning actor for the acclaimed TV show “Breaking Bad” is undoubtedly not lacking in talent, but he, along with the movie, faced a backlash with the 2017 release of the movie “The Upside,” a Hollywood remake of the French blockbuster “The Intouchables,” a dramedy featuring a Black caregiver and a millionaire quadriplegic. Movie fans took to social media and expressed their disappointment for Hollywood’s missed opportunity of accurate representation of people with disabilities. Their cries were heard as the movie, despite being top billed by Cranston and Kevin Hart, performed below expectations at the box office.
Moviegoers are slowly learning their lesson. Two years prior, a movie focusing on a quadriplegic created a storm at box offices worldwide, “Me Before You,” despite the criticism it faced. Based on a best-selling book, the movie was accused of selling the message that a life with disability isn’t worth living and romanticized euthanasia.
Last year, Hollywood proved it’s trying to change things with the 2019 release of “The Peanut Butter Falcon” featuring Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down syndrome as the main star, supported by Shia LeBeouf and Dakota Johnson. The film went on to garner numerous nominations in the awards circuit, and Gottsagen even got to present at the Oscars telecast in February this year.
In the same vein, an independent film from 2019, “Give Me Liberty” gave movie audiences a truthful glimpse of the life of people with disabilities through the eyes of a medical transport driver, Vic, who was the main character. Vic has his own problems but goes out of his way to lend a hand to those who need it, including Tracy, one of his passengers. Tracy was portrayed by actress influencer Lolo Spencer, who has Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The film felt so real and inspiring that those who saw it at the Cannes Film Festival reportedly gave it a 10-minute standing ovation.
The TV world isn’t lagging behind in terms of bringing differently abled individuals at the forefront. “Speechless,” a TV show which ran for three seasons, centred on the DiMeo family as they navigate the challenges that came their way. One of the sons, JJ DiMeo, was afflicted with cerebral palsy and was portrayed by Micah Fowler, who himself has cerebral palsy. The TV producers made sure Fowler was comfortable on set, providing him with a trailer with a ramp off the back. Fowler remains active in the limelight and also devotes his time to promote awareness to cerebral palsy as an ambassador for the Cerebral Palsy Foundation.
These are a few portrayals of people with disabilities, and there would be more to follow. While there’s still a lot to do, it’s getting there for sure.