By Larushka Ivan-Zadeh
ast Night, Siân Héder’s CODA won in three categories at the 94th Academy Awards Ceremony. This included Troy Kostur’s win for Best Supporting Actor - a historic moment marking the first time a deaf man has ever won an Oscar. The feature film also won Best Picture, marking it the third time ever a woman director has won in this category. (The third was for Best Adapted Screenplay.)
If Covid-19 can be thanked for anything, it’s the way the pandemic disrupted Hollywood. As major releases dropped out of schedules, marginalised voices found themselves centre stage and deafness was unusually dominant.
The winds of change started with 2019’s Sound Of Metal. Starring Riz Ahmed as a drummer who loses his hearing, it read like another ‘triumph against adversity’ Oscar-bait drama in which a disabled character (played by an able-bodied actor) bravely overcomes his tear-jerking affliction.
“I can’t see any actor putting on the costume of being deaf. We’ve had enough of that. It’s time for myself and other deaf actors to be able to speak up and say, enough is enough. We are here. Our talents are valid.”
Ahmed scored a Best Actor nomination for his electrifying turn but where Sound Of Metal brought something new to the party were the scenes of an all-deaf community, featuring largely authentic casting.
Even so, Sound Of Metal provoked conflicted reactions. The film was clearly aimed at a hearing market; there was outrage at the lack of subtitled and audio-enhanced screenings and while deaf viewers were thrilled at some rare on-screen representation, frustration was building that hearing actors continue to be cast in the tiny handful of decent screen roles written for deaf characters. Specifically, Paul Raci came under fire after his Oscar nomination for his role as the commune’s deaf leader.
At least Raci was raised as a CODA (child of deaf adults) - also the name of our 2022 Best Picture winner. Before taking home the Oscar last night, CODA was snapped up at 2021’s Sundance Film Festival by AppleTV+ for $25m (£18.6m). It’s a coming-of-age story about a teenager (Emilia Jones) who is the only hearing member of an eccentric family, played by an ensemble of non-hearing actors (who have, in contrast to Jones, so far been denied any awards recognition).
Jones’ mother is played by deaf actor and activist Marlee Matlin. One of only two disabled actors ever to win an Academy Award (for 1986’s Children of a Lesser God), Matlin called CODA a “very special movie” because “in my 35-year career I've never had deaf co-stars in leading roles who carry the film equally as me”.
“There was no acknowledgement given to the psyche of a deaf character; being deaf is more than just not hearing”
And it was down to Matlin to make that happen. When the backers of CODA said they wanted a famous actor to play her on-screen husband, Matlin put her foot down. “[I said] if you do, I’m just out, that’s it,” she told USA Today. “I can’t see any actor putting on the costume of being deaf. We’ve had enough of that. It’s time for myself and other deaf actors to be able to speak up and say, enough is enough. We are here. Our talents are valid.”
It’s a sign of the times that the studio caved. Just as the #MeToo and #BLM movements woke up Hollywood and the world to gender and race inequalities, a similar push for the visibility of disabled people is long overdue, as seen by their adopted hashtag #IncludeMe.
Rising star Millicent Simmonds represents a new generation of talent. Deaf since she was a baby, 18-year-old Simmonds was so good alongside Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place that for its sequel, director John Krasinski upgraded her to a leading role.
Simmonds’ character Regan embodies a new kind of deaf protagonist: strong, resourceful and certainly no victim – her deafness is normalised within her family and, in the sequel, her cochlear implant gives her an edge that none of the others possess.
Repositioning disability as a ‘super-power’ is now standard primary school teaching. But in the wrong hands, it can misfire. Inspired by Spike Lee’s coining of the ‘magical negro’ trope, ‘magical cripple’ is the pop-culture term for a disabled character who exists only to enable a non-disabled protagonist (eg Hugh Grant’s deaf brother in 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral), while ‘mystical cripple’ is a disabled character with an unusual ability (e.g Marvel’s 2015 Daredevil – a blind hero with the supernatural ability to ‘see’ sound).
"Simmonds’ character Regan embodies a new kind of deaf protagonist: strong, resourceful and certainly no victim."
Both of these clichés are refreshingly swerved by The Eternals, the 2021 blockbuster which cast non-hearing woman of colour Lauren Ridloff (who had a part in Sound Of Metal) as Marvel’s first deaf superhero Makkari. Originally a white, hearing male in the Marvel comics, this movie version boasts the same ability to move at super-speed – she just happens to communicate via sign language. She is not defined by her deafness.
This is a game-changer. There’s a long way to go before a deaf actor can be considered for any role, but that’s the point of equality. Of course, first, they have to get into the room.
In December 2020 there was a call to boycott Stephen King’s TV series The Stand after hearing actor Henry Zaga was cast as deaf character Nick Andros. A letter – shared by deaf filmmaker and originator of the #DeafTalent movement Jade Bryan and signed by 70 industry professionals – was uploaded to Twitter in which it was claimed “not one deaf professional actor was called in to audition for the role” and that “there was no acknowledgement given to the psyche of a deaf character; being deaf is more than just not hearing”.
" Makkari is Marvel's first deaf superhero. She happens to communicate via sign language but she is not defined by her deafness."
As the #MeToo and #BLM movements prove, creating authentic change is not just about offering tokenistic window-dressing to under-represented groups, it’s about giving them the chance to shape their own stories. We need deaf producers, directors and writers.
When Rose Ayling-Ellis starred in the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing in December, the focus was all about ‘how can she hear the music?’ and ‘isn’t she doing well for a deaf person?’. By the end, it was clear that she won because she was the best dancer in the competition. That, not her deafness, is what defined her.
Last night’s triple win for CODA turns the glimmer of hope that we saw with last year’s nominees into an even brighter flame. Though there is still a long way to go and drastic changes that need to be made in representation, the door is open and the talent is too good to ignore.
Authentic deaf representation is, at last, breaking through to the mainstream as CODA takes home three Oscars.
By Larushka Ivan-Zadeh