Inclusive Movies Centered Around Deaf Characters On The Rise | WBEZ
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Morning Shift

Inclusive Movies Centered Around Deaf Characters On The Rise

In the near future, any sound above a whisper can kill. At least that’s the premise of the new film A Quiet Place, starring Emily Blunt and the film’s director John Krasinski. The film follows the Abbott family in a post-apocalyptic future, where blind aliens with incredibly sensitive hearing track their prey — in this case, the human race — by hearing even the smallest sound. The Abbotts manage to avoid attracting the aliens’ attentions because with a deaf daughter, played by Millicent Simmonds, they’ve learned to largely communicate using American Sign Language.

Following critically-acclaimed films like WonderstruckThe Shape of Water, The TribeThe Silent Child, and Baby Driver — A Quiet Place is the latest in a growing list of movies in recent years to feature main characters who are deaf or exhibit some form of hearing loss.

Morning Shift talks to Lennard Davis, a professor in the English Department in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a specialist in disability studies, about this cinematic trend.

Transcript available below.

It was a record setting weekend at the box office for the film Avengers: Infinity War, hitting and estimated 250 million dollars in the U.S. and 630 million worldwide.

Coming in second was A Quiet Place, starring Emily Blunt and the film’s director John Krasinski.

The film follows the Abbott family in a post-apocalyptic future, where blind aliens with incredibly sensitive hearing track their prey—in this case, the human race—by hearing even the smallest sound.

Talk about a contrast between those two films. Now in this film, the Abbotts manage to avoid attracting the aliens’ attentions, since, with a deaf daughter played by Millicent Simmonds, they’ve learned to largely communicate using American Sign Language.

Following critically-acclaimed films like Wonderstruck, The Shape of Water, The Tribe, The Silent Child, and Baby Driver, A Quiet Place is the latest in a growing list of movies in recent years to feature main characters who are deaf or exhibit some form of hearing loss.

Joining us now to talk about this cinematic trend is a professor in the English Department in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Lennard Davis, who is also a specialist in disability studies. Lennard, welcome to the Morning Shift.  

LENNARD DAVIS: Thank you.

SARABIA: So I mentioned these movies, and I’m curious: cinema has been around for more than 100 years. How would you categorize how film, television, Hollywood at large has dealt with Deaf people and other disability communities?

LENNARD DAVIS: Yeah that’s an interesting question and a very big one — people have written books on that — but just to put it in perspective, I think until fairly recently disability was included in films and quite popular. I mean, if you want to win an Academy Award, play a disabled person. You can just go down the list: Born On The Fourth of July, Rain Man, My Left Foot. So people are interested in disability but by and large those films are not made by people who know about disability. The actors are often not disabled or deaf, so what you’re getting for the most part is stereotypes.

Disabled people are often depicted in films as bitter, many times the bad guy in the film has a limp or an eye patch or is missing an arm — that's how you know they’re a bad guy — and he’s bitter because of his disability presumably and he’s going out and killing people. Or people with disabilities are seen as very innocent and lonely, so in the past it hasn’t been a great world for people with disabilities to go to the movies and see themselves represented. I think it’s kind of like the way it was historically -- with certain exception -- when people of color, say, went to the movies, and the films were all being made by white men. Same thing for women. So you’re getting a very distorted view of what it’s like to have a disability.

The other thing is that in films, when there’s a person with a disability, there’s a reason for it. So, in other words, there aren’t just people in the film world who are disabled and who are just being a radio announcer, or a mailman or letter carrier. The person’s disability has always got to be the focus of the film.

SARABIA: We saw that certainly with the film I mentioned, A Quiet Place. But getting back to one of the stereotypes that you mentioned that kind of presented itself in The Shape of Water. And so I’m curious, how much has stayed the same over all of these years? That character, she really doesn’t have much of a life: she goes to work, she comes home, she goes to work and comes home.

DAVIS: I’ve compared three films — The Shape of Water, Wonderstruck, and A Quiet Place — and in my mind the two films that really portray people with deafness well are Wonderstruck and A Quiet Place. As great a movie as The Shape of Water is — I enjoyed it and there’s a lot to enjoy — it does have this stereotype. She’s not deaf, she’s mute. But she speaks in sign language, and she’s isolated. Her two friends are outsiders also: one’s an African American woman, one’s a gay man, and they sort of magically can speak sign language, which is a problem because American Sign Language is a real language. It takes a long time to learn it and it takes a long time to understand it. But in the film it’s just kind of treated like “oh sure, if your friend is using Sign Language, you’ll pick it up instantly.”

Another thing about her is, as you said, she’s alone. She doesn’t have a boyfriend -- it turns out the only boyfriend she can get is an amphibious one. I mean, that’s part of the film, I don’t mean to be too political about it. But the point is though that she is the classic innocent, alone, disabled person.

SARABIA: When it comes to this long history of cinema and people with disabilities, there’s also that other side—it doesn’t seem to happen a lot now—but where they were used as sort of the butt of jokes.

DAVIS: It’s a kind of classic thing. Actually if you look at early movie-making—silent movies—a lot of the early silent movies are about people with disabilities, often people who are faking disabilities. There are very short silent films about a man who is wheeling around and is begging and then gets up and runs away, or a blind man who takes his glasses off and runs away. So there's this idea of comedy. Also, not only in film but in operas or dramas, there is often that older character who is deaf and there’s that kind of “Ay, what?” moment that the audience is supposed to find very funny. So making fun of people with disabilities is still around. Whether it’s done in film or done by presidential candidates, it is still around.

SARABIA: You wrote a piece recently in the LA Review of Books that explored how movies recently have not only been including more Deaf characters and plots centered around them, but also had themes of what you called “Deaf gain.” What is Deaf gain?

DAVIS: Deaf gain is a concept that a professor at Gallaudet [University] named Dirksen Bauman and another named Joseph Murray came up with. It’s to counter the idea of a hearing loss. I think most people, when they think about disabilities, they think about it as a loss. For many people who are not disabled, to become disabled would be a tragedy. But actually if you talk to disabled people and you say “hey, would you go through life again and not be disabled?” many, many would say “No, I’d rather be disabled because it made me who I am. So the point is deafness is a positive thing. It’s not portrayed necessarily as a positive thing, although in two of the films it is, particularly in A Quiet Place — Millicent Simmonds’ character’s deafness turns out to save the day. So you know that is what I would call Deaf gain.

But also if you look at the history of technology and science, the history of art, deaf people have contributed a tremendous amount. We don’t tend to stress that. We do that for other minorities; we talk about so-and-so did this and that person was African American, Mexican, a woman —but we don’t tend to do that for people who are deaf (except for Beethoven).

SARABIA: Aside from the quiet place, are there other examples where you see Deaf gain?

DAVIS: You mean in film? 

SARABIA: In film, or perhaps in general.

DAVIS: There’s a new film that just came out, and I haven’t seen it. I don’t think it’s hit the theatres yet but let me go back to another point. We will do much better understanding Deaf gain when we have deaf actors playing deaf roles. So Millicent Simmons —

SARABIA: And directors.  

DAVIS: Yes. When we have actors who are playing deaf roles, the movies tend to be better. When we have directors who are deaf who are making movies, they will tend to have a more realistic view. And it doesn’t have to be more realistic because this new film is called Deaf Gene,* and it’s a superhero movie with deaf superheroes whose powers come from the fact that when they sign, the signs that they make shoot out and will have an effect. I haven’t seen it yet and I don't know how wide it will be distributed. But it looks pretty cool.

SARABIA: Maybe something that could sort of encourage kids as well--I can imagine this being geared toward kids perhaps who are dealing with this themselves?

DAVIS: It could be. Yes, for sure. I think deaf kids watching that would definitely have the same kind of role model that hearing kids have when they watch superhero movies. You hope it’s a good role model.

SARABIA:  You know you mentioned silent film and how people with disabilities, including deaf people, were sort of mocked. But there’s the other side of it--this was sort of a golden age at least for deaf actors in silent film.

DAVIS: Deaf actors and deaf audiences. You know, deaf people could go to the theater and watch a silent movie just like anybody else. They weren’t deaf once they walked in that theater. They also did use deaf actors because they thought their facial expressions and physical expressions were very dramatic.

Actually, in Wonderstruck that was a plot point. Part of the movie is set back in the silent movie era, and Millicent Simmond[‘s character] grows up in that time and finds out that the theater that she goes to to watch her silent movies is being changed over to talkies, and that triggers a plot point. The other things is that we don’t think about this, but the movie A Quiet Place, which i said is a good example of Deaf gain, has one problem. Most of the movie is silent, when the characters are signing in American Sign Language, there’s subtitles. But as soon as they stop signing, the subtitles go away, and deaf people who have gone to the theater to see the movie say they’re completely confused at that point. They don’t know what the characters are saying. So in terms of accessibility we often might want to think a little more about -- especially movies like this -- making it actually accessible to deaf people.

SARABIA: I wonder what that says about how people perceive audience.

DAVIS: We’re on a radio show and unless you make a transcript of this show, deaf audiences aren’t going to be able to enjoy the conversation that we’re having. I have one experience where I published a book about my parents’ love letters and that was turned into a radio play for the BBC, and BBC actually did a transcript so that deaf people could [experience] it -- my parents were deaf. And also, the did a deaf sign version of it that was available online during the time the radio play was running.

So you have to think about these things and it’s important if you want to be inclusive that even something like radio could be more inclusive for deaf people.

SARABIA: We’re here talking about this primarily because films of late are starting to feature deaf characters but is there any concern on your part that it’s a passing trend or just of the moment? And we know that Hollywood tends not to be original a lot of times so do you fear that “post-moment,” nothing will really come of this?

DAVIS:  Hollywood has a short attention span so you’re right to point that out. But I think the more familiar we get with people with disabilities that screenwriters and directors will, as they do now, include a variety of actors and characters that didn’t appear before. [And I think] they’ll do that more naturally. And if people attend these films and [or that reason] there’s buzz about the, then they’ll think “Oh yeah, why don’t i use a deaf actor?” I’m hopeful about that, rather than thinking of it as a short term thing.

SARABIA: Professor, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it.

DAVIS: My pleasure.

*Editor's note. The 2018 movie's title is Sign Gene.

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