#HollywoodSoAbleist - the dangerous bigotry of a new movie release
Hollywood's next big drama features a man living in Alabama during segregation. While he grew up in a white family, his skin is slightly darker, and the local magistrate discovers evidence that he is actually part black and was secretly adopted. He is shunned due to his ancestry. He must leave his all-white neighborhood, give up his job, and surrender many of the privileges he enjoyed in the white community. He becomes suicidal, and his parents hire an attractive young white woman to perform a suicide watch. He can no longer bank or shop in his usual places, so she does this for him. She expresses ongoing disgust over having to assist him with these menial tasks. Eventually, they fall in love, but the man tells her that his newly discovered ancestry prevents him from being able to care for her properly, to marry her, or to even physically make love to her. She does not protest, but agrees that his line of thinking is logical. She has no interest in boldly using her life to counter the prevailing stereotypes about African-Americans. Marrying someone part African-American during segregation would hinder her aspirations, and she wrestles with the limitations this liability would cause in her life . The man decides to go ahead and commit suicide and bequeath her a large fortune. His decision is applauded by friends and family as noble and generous. The young woman can now pursue her dreams, unfettered by her relationship to this individual who, if fully white, would have been the perfect spouse, but as a partially black man, would have only held her back. As the movie fades to black, audiences are left with the impression that it is better to be dead than black.
The actor chosen to play the main character is a popular young white actor who wears blackface for the role. The movie is adapted from a book by a white author. When the author is asked about her personal knowledge of the difficulties faced by African-Americans in the segregated South, she explains that she interviewed many African-Americans about their struggle, and she also has "many black friends."
Can you envision the outrage? Hollywood would never release a movie like this, right?
Actually, this weekend's new box office release fits the exact template outlined above. Just replace "black" with "disabled" and you have Me Before You, a 'romance' about an able-bodied man who loses the use of his legs in an accident and is confined to a wheelchair. He falls in love with the woman hired by his parents to watch him. He complains to her that his disability prevents him from becoming a complete husband, and she does not disagree. She passively accepts his decision to commit physician-assisted suicide, and warmly embraces the new freedom to pursue her dreams once he is out of the picture and she claims his large monetary fortune. Tearful audiences are sent the not-so-subtle message that death is better than disability, as the main character reinforces this notion through a celebrated suicide.
The role of Will Traynor, the character with the acquired disability, is played by handsome, able-bodied actor Sam Claflin, who "crips up" for the role, as people in the disability community call it. Actors with working legs who set themselves in wheelchairs to depict people with disability, when many disabled actors live and work in Hollywood, are the able-bodied community's shameful equivalent of actors who wore blackface. We shudder to see white actors in the 1930's wearing black makeup, when Hollywood gave in to prevalent stereotypes that black people could not adequately depict themselves on screen. Yet, we ignore actors with disability (the only disabled actor to win an Oscar was Marlee Matlin in 1986!), and we celebrate able-bodied actors who "stretch" themselves to depict people with disabilities, actors who hear "Cut!" and hop up from their wheelchairs and walk down the red carpet to thunderous applause. Yes, some actors have produced marvelously sensitive portrayals of people with disabilities, but I'm sure the fact that 14 of the past 27 Best Actor winners played a character with a disability has nothing to do with these roles being written for and snapped up by popular able-bodied actors.
I am not disabled, but many people with disability have rightfully taken offense to the film Me Before You. They can explain their perspective on this film's ignorant and dangerous message much better than I.
I commend these articles to you:
Read attorney David Bekhour's deconstruction of the harmful myth that people in wheelchairs simply roll around wishing to kill themselves.
What strikes me about each of these articles is none of them are written from a position of anger. All are written to educate. I hope you will take time to educate yourself about the pervasive prejudice faced by people with disabilities, and I hope you refuse to support the anti-disability bigotry exuding from Me Before You.
To connect with a group of people who truly #LiveBoldly - visit notdeadyet.org