The disability community has a very difficult journey towards attaining equality in many aspects, one of which is finding authentic portrayals. A major way to work towards better, more authentic representations of characters with disabilities is to cast actual actors with disabilities. I have unfortunately realized that most people have no comprehension of how deeply media portrayals affect our lives. Every time a disabled character is presented in films or on television, the disability community either gains greater understanding because people are educated on issues of ableism and oppression, or it leads to even more ableism and oppression.
I have spent years studying films that feature characters with disabilities. I have evolved to realize non-disabled actors cannot portray disability without relying on harmful physical tropes. Even when depicting non-physical disabilities, an actor without that disability tends to utilize their physical body as a personification of disability. From the rocking autistic to the physical voice transformations where actors speak with a “disability voice” (an offensive mimicry of the supposed vocal intonation or speech variations some disabled people have) every physical characterization is supposed to I show the audience the character is, in fact, disabled.
The thing is, disabled people simply are disabled. The more films I’ve watched the more I am convinced that non-disabled people are simply not capable of emulating disability. While the disabled person just has to worry about acting out the character, a non-disabled person is often more focused on making sure they are hitting the physical stereotype marks on cue. It detracts from the performance, and lacks pure authenticity. Disabled people are so used to being excluded, though, so many of us are content with the few scraps we are offered. What those people do not realize, the ones defending an okay script because at least we’re not being murdered, is that the more we accept these scraps, the less chance we have of being included in the next film project. We need to demand inclusion, because nobody else is going to help us get it. Nobody else seems to realize the problems, and sometimes they just don’t care when they do.
Keeping this in mind, the film, Don’t Breathe, not only has questionable content in relation to the disabled character, a blind veteran who hunts down the “physically perfect” protagonists who think he is an easy mark to steal from because he is blind, but it also features non-blind actor, Stephen Lang. From the get go, Lang speaks about the character and his blindness the way a lot of non-disabled people talk about disability. He refers to the character as a, “victim first,” and being blind is just a part of that. If the lead actor cannot even comment on the disabled character he plays in a way that is not ableist, then this film already has problems. The character also seem to have extrasensory perception, or else he’s faking. Both of these are additional stereotypes we commonly see in film, although by Lang’s assessment of the character, and his “shrapnel damaged eyes,” the latter does not seem to be a possibility, unless not being disabled is supposed to be the unexpected twist.
Various members of the disability community have come to me directly with their concerns about this film, particularly after watching the red band trailer and the international trailer, both of which you can see below. It, by the way, does not offer any type of audio descriptions or closed captioning, so those who are blind, Deaf, or hard of hearing cannot access it. It is still unclear what kind of accommodations may be offered at the movie theater. It would be great irony as a blind person was unable to experience a film with a blind character in a pivotal role.
The trailer offers implications of problematic stereotyping and tropes. Some have tried to argue this doesn’t fit the idea behind the “evil cripple” trope we see so often in films. However, part of that idea is that the audience is meant to sympathize with the protagonist or protagonists, who unlike the evil disabled character, are physically perfect, which essentially means they are non-disabled. It doesn’t matter if the characters are good or evil themselves. The audience will want to root for their survival. The trailer clearly implies that despite trying to rob this blind man, the protagonists, particularly the non-disabled female protagonist, are actually the characters we are supposed to empathize with and root for their survival. Some have also suggested that the blind man may be acting in self-defense, which may initially be why he fights back. However, near the end of the trailer one of the characters gets out of the house, and he captures her, dragging her back into the home where he takes her into a room to torture her. That pretty much throws self-defense out the window. The trailer makes it pretty clear he is hunting them down to viciously kill them.
Just the way the filmmakers and actors talk about blind character is unsettling. The disability community recently attended a Q&A with the director, Fede Alvarez. While much of our concern went largely ignored, Mr. Alvarez told activists they were wrong for thinking his trailer was ableist. In a classic example of ablespaining, he said that he believes blind people can do anything, and his trailer shows that. However, I smartly responded by saying…blind people can do anything except for playing the blind character in your film.
Look… I’m going to make it simple. Until disabled actors are given equal opportunity to play any character in a film, and until disabled writers are given a chance to tell their own stories, these portrayals are going to continue to hurt our community. We cannot have it both ways. We cannot want to be treated equally in all aspects of our lives, but also defend, or at least, not speak out about the continued exclusion of disabled people in the film industry. We cannot say, I’m willing to let this one slide, because I liked the film. We can like something, and still point out how problematic and harmful it is.
The disability community often says, “nothing about us without us.” However, everything about this movie is about us… and all of it is without us. We must demand that filmmakers stop doing this, because the continued exclusion, oppression, and discrimination is never going to stop otherwise. The vast majority of non-disabled people are indifferent to what kind of oppression we actually face. We cannot depend on them to change on their own. We have to demand that they change with our guidance. We deserve nothing less.