Disability In Cinema: Exploring Empowerment


Rain Man 2

So, where does popular culture come into the equation? And, in particular, where do films come into it? Well, it’s the nature of the medium to form an emotional connection with its viewer. We continually bridge the gap between fiction and reality as we identify with heroes – and sometimes villains – who reflect our own personal struggles.

And this is perhaps the most important thing an actor has to keep in mind when approaching a role that demands the radical transgression from the able-body to the malady in question. Some seem to do this with consummate ease, slipping into the role as effortlessly as they would a bathrobe.

It may seem like typical Oscar-bait (and many of these performances are justly rewarded with a nomination), but there is something intangible about the magnificence of the various disabled characters that have graced our screen. They portray a sense of dignity, humility and raise awareness for those who undergo the trials and tribulations of these conditions every day. Perhaps more importantly, they offer a voice that transcends the silver-screen and reverberates with all of us affected by disability in some way.

Which is the basis for this article, a celebratory piece of those stand-out acts that served to do more than just play somebody in a film. But where do you start? With such an expansive list of disabled characters, how can we begin to evaluate – and appreciate – the efforts of the creative talent? We could look to the most famous of these performances, the select few who not only churned out a terrific turn, but immortalised their dedication to the art of filmmaking over the course of a running time, and empowered those who live under disability’s turmoil and hardship.

This then raises a number of issues regarding the legitimacy of the work, namely whether it is based on fact or fiction, and – if it’s the latter – whether the fiction duly represents the lifestyle it seeks to convey. That being said, we’ll take a look at films that fall under these categories in the hope to discover what enables certain disabled characters to rise above the limitations of their defect.

It has to be said, it seems somewhat disappointing that notable figures who have fought disability over the years needed the influential power and reach of cinema to find a truly significant place in the public eye. People like Christy Brown or Ron Kovac, for example, should have been heralded for their achievements in their own rights, long before My Left Foot and Born on the Fourth of July came out. After all, such contributions towards cerebral palsy and paraplegic awareness (not to mention pacifism) are almost unprecedented – a tremendous feat in the face of unsurmountable odds – so why do we need the films to substantiate such things? With that in mind, it’s possible to see the flip-side of the scenario. Rather than relying on a movie for recognition and mass awareness, the very fact we have these biopics is the ultimate recognition in itself.

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