The Complexities of Getting Disability Right on Film

Jennifer E. Engen

In a 1993 episode of Seinfeld, Jerry dates a deaf woman named Laura. Naturally, George views Laura’s disability as something to be exploited. He wants her to read lips from across the room at a party so he can find out what, if anything, others are saying about him. It’s George’s gall, not Laura’s deafness, that’s the butt of the joke. But the episode is illustrative of a larger phenomenon: For decades, whenever disabled characters have appeared on-screen, they’ve typically been defined by their disability and little else.

Marlee Matlin, the deaf actress who played Laura, is part of the ensemble of deaf actors in the movie CODA. By now readers may be familiar with CODA’s origin story: Filmed for a reported $10 million on location in Gloucester, Massachusetts, CODA won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, sold to Apple Studios for a record $25 million, and has since nabbed three Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

Roughly a third of CODA’s dialogue takes place in American Sign Language (ASL). Troy Kotsur, a deaf actor, delivers an exuberant, poignant performance as Frank Rossi, a deaf father. Frank is a fisherman, a family man, and a Lebowski-esque stoner who cranks hip-hop in his truck so he can feel the bass rumble on his butt. Kotsur steals scene after scene, and is now the first deaf man to be nominated for an Academy Award. Matlin is the only deaf woman to have ever received a nomination; she won for her role in 1986’s Children of a Lesser God.

I’m a hearing person, but as someone who lives with a pronounced stutter, CODA deeply affected me in its portrayal of individuals navigating the minefield of sharing the thoughts inside their head with people who communicate differently than they do. The first time I watched CODA, using the standard settings on my TV, captions appeared only when the actors were communicating through sign language. When I streamed the movie again, I turned captions on for the duration, which is how the film plays in theaters, something Kotsur noted when he accepted his Screen Actors Guild Award last month. During my second viewing, I tried to keep up with the spoken dialogue via the captions and found it fairly exhausting to do so.

CODA pushes back against certain lazy Hollywood tropes by giving its deaf characters layered interior lives. The production’s extensive use of ASL and its casting of deaf actors in deaf roles are milestones worth celebrating. But the deaf performers play supporting roles, and we’re principally following the journey of a hearing protagonist. Even after two viewings, I’m still trying to answer a fundamental question: Who is CODA for?

As the movie opens on an establishing shot of the family boat, Etta James’s “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” plays on a small radio, but only one person onboard is seemingly aware of that. Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the film’s namesake “CODA,” or child of deaf adults. Ruby rises before dawn each morning to work with her father, Frank, and brother, Leo (Daniel Durant), before heading off to school. We see her radioing to the coast guard and haggling with the guy who runs the fish market. One afternoon she serves as her dad’s interpreter at a doctor’s appointment while he describes a pubic rash in great detail.

Jones learned to sign for the role, and the scenes featuring her and her deaf co-stars are especially compelling. Time passes differently during these moments—the lack of audible dialogue forces the viewer to be more present. Without rapid-fire banter, you have space to notice an array of sounds around the edges of the movie: crickets chirping in the night, hands smacking during an ASL argument.

The first time we hear Ruby’s voice, she tells us—through song—that she’s on the precipice of change, and perhaps ready to put herself first. For Ruby, music serves as a source of both comfort and liberation. Early in the film, she skittishly joins the school choir. When Ruby’s instructor leads her in a vocal exercise of basic musical notes—“mi, mi, mi, mi”—what he’s really doing is giving her permission to say me. Jackie, Ruby’s mother (Matlin), doesn’t understand why her daughter wants to pursue music. In one gutting scene, Jackie asks Ruby, “If I was blind, would you want to paint?”

This is where CODA gets a little tricky. If you’re a disabled person, you may live with the nagging fear that your problem, your thing, is a burden to your family and friends. CODA doesn’t exactly dismiss that thought.

Generally, the deaf community’s response to the film has been positive. Gallaudet, a university for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C., has embraced the movie and hosted screenings and a panel discussion with cast members. But the film has attracted some criticism as well.

Sarah Katz, a deaf writer in the D.C. area, told me that her initial excitement for CODA was tempered by “its focus on a musically inclined hearing character.” Katz found the Rossi family’s reliance on Ruby unrealistic at times, specifically during a legal hearing. In such a setting, the family would have had access to a professional interpreter. Katz said she wasn’t sure whether she’d endorse the movie for a fellow deaf person. But for a hearing audience, she said, “I would recommend CODA because it depicts deaf characters who seem, for the most part, authentic, with the caveat that deaf people are not as needy as the movie portrays them to be.”

Liam O’Dell, a deaf journalist in the United Kingdom, told me he appreciated the way CODA’s deaf characters disengage in certain social situations, especially crowded rooms—something he does himself. And yet he ultimately sees it as a story about “a hearing person trying to live in the hearing world” in spite of her deaf family, which he found troubling.

“I’d argue CODA is a film aimed more at hearing people than it is deaf people,” O’Dell said. “It’s just incredibly frustrating that they didn’t take that opportunity to say, ‘Hey, hearing people, here’s what you can be doing better,’ and instead [went] for, ‘Deaf people have all these access requirements that are so burdensome.’”

Some of these dynamics are addressed on-screen. Time and again, Ruby’s brother, Leo, tries to reject his sister’s assistance. He reads lips, he puts himself out there to join his fellow fishermen at the bar, and he attempts to do his own financial negotiating before Ruby steps in to do it quicker, faster, “better.” At one point, Leo nearly breaks the fourth wall during a fight with her: “We’re not helpless!” he signs, holding back tears. In this moment, Leo is chastising his sister, but also every hearing person who has ever patronized a deaf individual.

Another divisive aspect of CODA is the outsize role that music plays in the plot. Though music is not intrinsically antithetical to deafness—deaf musicians are not unusual; O’Dell is a drummer—CODA largely treats music as an exclusionary club for hearing people.

Ruby and her high-school crush, Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), spend much of the film working on a duet of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By.” Each teen takes turns on the verses; Ruby sings, “With my arms open wide / I threw away my pride / I’ll sacrifice for you / Dedicate my life for you.”

The original version of that song is a conversation between two lovers, but here, we know that Ruby is singing about her family. Of course, get by is different from thrive. Ruby’s family is working-class, and she refers to her modest house as both “gross” and “disgusting.” Her bedroom ceilings are low and slanted, making her world seem even smaller than it already is. But Ruby has her bedside boom box, and her Goodwill turntable, and her voice. When she’s frustrated, she can scream at the top of her lungs, knowing, for better or worse, that no one in the house will hear her.

Every time the film veers toward pain or sadness, you can trust that a new song is coming around the bend. Central to CODA’s appeal is its well-curated soundtrack (the Shaggs, the Clash), and the choral versions of hits from David Bowie and the Isley Brothers. Each song is a chance for you—and the film—to reset. But the you in that sentence refers mainly to the hearing members of the audience. In one scene, we hear the music of the film from the perspective of Ruby’s family. The silence is heavy. It hangs.

Even with its hearing protagonist, CODA helps normalize and destigmatize certain elements of disability. And large audiences are now more aware of talented deaf actors beyond Matlin, who has worked steadily since she won her Oscar nearly four decades ago. For her role as Laura, Jerry Seinfeld’s deaf girlfriend, she received an Emmy nomination—one of four throughout her career. Matlin was the first deaf actor cast in CODA, and she threatened to walk away from the production unless the producers agreed to hire deaf actors for the other deaf parts. Durant’s performance as Leo is especially powerful, and Kotsur may inspire a new generation of deaf performers.

I’m rooting for CODA at the Oscars, and Kotsur in particular. But I can’t stop thinking about the one line he delivers verbally. At the end of the film, Kotsur’s character, Frank, says, “Go.” He’s giving his daughter permission to leave the nest. That Kotsur speaks this line rather than signs it initially struck me as corny, until I thought back to my own pathetic exhaustion with reading the captions during my second viewing. If by the end of the movie you were too tired, or too lazy, to do the reading, you still could not miss this moment. Whether or not you agree with Katz and O’Dell that CODA is primarily a movie for hearing people, this particular line clearly is directed at—even caters to—the needs of a hearing audience member.

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