Deaf Representation and the Film Industry
CODA is a film that is impossible to miss. Not in the clichéd sense of it being a must-see movie, but in the way that it is one which appears physically impossible to avoid. Over the past few months, CODA has absolutely swept the awards circuit worldwide, starting with its debut at Sundance.
Since then, the film and its cast has gone on to win over 50 awards, and been nominated for countless more. The film’s critical acclaim shows no signs of slowing, as it has picked up awards as recently as last months’ Satellite Awards, despite premiering over a year ago.
With the overwhelming critical reception, press coverage, and social media hype, many have seen the film as a watershed moment for Deaf culture. Many real-life Children of Deaf Adults have praised the film as a refreshingly genuine portrayal of their experience. Similarly, its portrayal of Deaf people as self-reliant and fully fleshed out characters has lead the vice chair of RespectAbility, Delbert Whetter to say:
"After seeing so many stories where people with disabilities are depicted as helpless, forlorn souls needing to be rescued, it is so refreshing to see a story with Deaf characters that are small business owners and leaders in their fishing community, with depth and nuance that rival and even exceed that of their hearing counterparts in the story.”
However, some amongst the Deaf community have been more critical of the film and its success. Firstly, some CODAs have argued that it should not be the responsibility of the child to interpret for their Deaf parents. Admittedly, accessing interpreters can be especially difficult in rural communities, but the film’s depiction of the CODA Ruby interpreting in an official capacity where professional interpreters would be required is misleading.
In addition, the film falls prey to a common trope of depicting Deaf people as being unable to appreciate music, and even hostile towards it. One only needs to look towards the recent success of Rose Ayling-Ellis on Strictly Come Dancing to realise that how false this stereotype is. Jenna Beacom, herself a Deaf parent of a musician, sums up a lot of the praise and criticism of the film:
“Overall, I’m thrilled that the movie exists, in the sense of contributing to more deaf representation and hopefully more opportunities for even better representation", she says, while admitting to be "very disturbed by how negatively the movie portrays the deaf and CODA experiences."
Though the film paints a sympathetic picture of the child in question, the focalisation of the child has the unfortunate consequence of appearing to place the blame for her difficulties not on the inaccessibility of society, but on her Deaf family themselves. For Liam O'Dell, this is why CODA is fundamentally flawed: the Deaf people in the film are portrayed as holding back the hearing protagonist. O’Dell argues that having a hearing director and writer, the film inevitably ends up being aimed towards a hearing audience, and as such its these misrepresentations are even more damaging. In his review, CODA “shines completely the wrong light on how to tackle inaccessibility, in a negligence which is both harmful and dangerous.”
So, do these flaws in representation and inaccurate portrayals mean that the film's achievements cannot or should not be celebrated? On the other hand, some of the awards the film has received are undeniable indicators of positive change. For instance, Troy Kotsur being the first Deaf person to win a BAFTA, and the film being the first starring predominantly deaf actors to win Best Picture. Kotsur’s acceptance speech signed in ASL at the Academy Awards was an undeniably heartwarming moment, and one which had the feeling of a real cultural turning point.
When Kotsur went up to the stage to accept his award, the audience was remarkably quiet - not because they weren’t supporting his historic win, but because they were signing. Rather than applauding, the audience all stood up and waved their hands in the air in the gesture of visual applause which has been embraced by the Deaf community. For Kotsur and many others, this recognition felt like a landmark moment, a culmination of his “hellish, tough journey” through the film industry as a deaf person.
“This is dedicated to the Deaf community, the CODA community, and the disabled community. This is our moment.”
Troy Kotsur’s Oscar acceptance speech
However controversial the film’s direction and its message are, we can recognise its successes in moments like this which celebrate the Deaf actor in the film, rather than its hearing writer and director. The normalisation and critical recognition of Deaf actors is a crucial step towards more equal representation within the film and media industry. The Academy appears to have progressed from celebrating hearing people portraying Deaf roles to recognising Deaf actors. However, this begs the question of when it will make the same progress with other roles in the industry.
With the momentum that CODA has gained, hopefully it will not be long before we see another Academy audience on their feet and waving their hands: this time, perhaps for a film written or directed by a Deaf person. This change will be crucial in avoiding the same controversial mistakes of misrepresentation and stereotypes.
There is every reason to be hopeful for this: Troy Kotsur’s next project will see him star in Flash Before the Bang, a film which promises exactly that. It is a Deaf story written, directed, and produced by Deaf people, and is based on the life story of the director Jevon Whetter.
Ultimately, though CODA may be problematic, we can appreciate its achievements without taking it as gospel, or holding it up as perfect. We do not have to even like it to be thankful for the forwards strides that its popular reception has achieved for the Deaf community - including its popularisation of open captions, incredible Deaf actors, and a script 40% in ASL.
We can hope that these signs of change will stick, and that in future, rather than just celebrating Deaf acting in hearing people’s narratives, the film industry will learn to celebrate Deaf people telling their own stories, in their own way.