What do Tom Hanks, Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman, Marlee Matlin and Patty Duke have in common? They’ve all won an Oscar playing a disabled character.
However, the deaf star of Children of A Lesser God, Matlin is the only one who’s actually disabled.
Angry protests in America about Tropic Thunder and Blindness (which hired 700 sighted extras to act blind) have reignited the debate about the depiction of disability and (excluding dwarfism which, largely thanks to Peter Dinklage, has found Hollywood acceptance) lack of opportunity for disabled actors.
Certainly, real-life amputee Robert David Hall has a recurring role on CSI, Down’s Syndrome actress Paula Sage was tremendous in the little-seen AfterLife and the Farrelly brothers always include disabled performers in their comedies. However, long regarded as awards bait, such high-profile roles are almost exclusively filled by able-bodied actors.
Wheelchair-bound American actress Ann Stocking, who pointedly played a casting agent in Stuck On You, says she’s lucky to get five auditions a year and only then if the role specifies disability, while a recent report revealed that people with disabilities comprise just three per cent of the entire film and television industry’s workforce, much lower than the 13 per cent in the UK workforce as a whole.
To add fuel to the fire, BAFTA recently refused to screen The Last American Freak Show, a documentary by a disabled British director about a group of disabled artists touring America.
All of which has put a small, independent British film in the spotlight.
Directed by Handsworth-born Justin Edgar and filmed around Birmingham and the West Midlands, Special People is a serio-comedy about a group of disabled people, played by wheelchair users David Proud, Sasha Hardway and Robyn Frampton.
Opening the 2008 London Disability Film Festival and named best film at the Britspotting Film Festival in Berlin, it grew out of a short Edgar film made three years ago with disabled youngsters (Frampton included) in Hereford.
“I’d made a community film with them and they’d found the process interesting,” he recalls. “I had some funding left and they said they’d like to make a film about a wally film director making a film with disabled kids.”
Not taking it personally, he drafted in Dominic Coleman to play the director, while the cast improvised the narrative from their own experiences. Having played some 50 film festivals and being short-listed for an Oscar, Edgar felt there was more mileage to be had and, with direct input from his disabled cast, set about turning it into a feature.
“Given the response to the short, I naively assumed it would be an easy process to get money, but it proved even harder. There’s a huge resistance to disability films.
“No one came out and said as much, but the general consensus was that disability isn’t commercial, so nobody’s interested. Given how badly things like Inside I’m Dancing and Murderball did, I can see why they think that, but it’s my job as a director to challenge thoseinstincts.”
Having a hearing impediment himself, Edgar’s no woolly liberal who’s found an issues flag to wave.
“It’s not like being in a wheelchair but, since it wasn’t diagnosed until I was 12, it did give me an insight into how it feels to be an outsider and not being able to communicate. The first thing I ever did after film school was a local TV report about having an invisible disability. The reaction to that spurred my interest in exploring life from the disabled’s perspective.”
Much of Special People is about breaking down the negative perceptions of disability represented byColeman’s character.
“I didn’t want it to be another film where you said, ‘aren’t they good, look what these disabled kids are doing, it must be hard for them’. I wanted to be truthful to them as people and to their talents. It’s their voice that drives the film.”
Edgar dismisses arguments about technical or health and safety considerations as another misguided excuse for not using disabled actors.
“I’ve worked with a lot over the years and I’ve never found a problem. You just need have someone who’s aware of their needs, make the necessary provisions and ensure there’s space to move around. We did Special People in just 13 days and we had no problems whatsoever with wheelchairs.”
Featuring scenes involving a fight and dancing, it’s obvious they’re no impediment to either action or lyricism, while a moment between Frampton and Down’s syndrome actress Justine is one of the year’s most poignant. In all of them, the disability disappears and it becomes about the characters, not their condition.
“To me this isn’t about ‘issues’ filmmaking,” says Edgar. “I want to get disability into the mainstream and disabled characters on the screen. A friend of mine who was a Thalidomide baby recently appeared on Doctors without any mention of his disability. I wish there could be more instances like that. I’ve had producers call me and ask if I could recommend a teenage girl wheelchair user, so there’s clearly a need for disabled actors, but there’s such little awareness of them.”
“David, Sasha and Robyn have been constantly frustrated with doing small roles or not getting the part at all, so this has been a great opportunity to show what they can do. They took the bull by the horns and went for it and it’s been great to watch their stature and confidence as actors grow in the whole process of affirmation.”
Currently developing another Screen West Midlands funded project about Aktion T4, the Nazi euthanasia programme for mentally disabled, Edgar admits that getting the film seen is going to be a battle, but, like his cast, he passionately believes it will reward the effort.
“It’s taken a long time to find cinemas who will show it. The people who book in films don’t think disability has a mainstream audience, but I believe they’re wrong. Ultimately, Special People is about a group of people who have to learn to face up to their own truths, whether they like them or not, and it will make you laugh, cry, and cringe.”
n Special People has its Birmingham Premiere at the Electric Cinema on Monday and plays for four days.