Disabled in Hollywood: A Lack of Diversity

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... I can not rely on Hollywood to represent me! ...

by Leroy Moore

As a Black disabled man, I can not rely on Hollywood to represent me! Although Hollywood may be learning about people with disabilities and it already has had years upon years to learn about Black culture and how to represent Black people, Hollywood has not connected the two into one: Black disabled people. I was really excited to see movies with disabled themes and actors playing disabled roles, but when I concentrated on what has been coming out of Hollywood I realized that the movies have looked like the dominant culture.

Before the mid 90’s I could count on one hand the movies that had a Black actor or actress in a lead disabled role, and they were not portraying disability in a positive and empowering light. On the other hand, there have been many movies with White actors and actresses playing positive disabled roles.

Lately, Hollywood has been cashing in on disabled people.There is a lack of diversity in roles, however. Nine times out of ten, White disabled people are enjoying this newly found fame while Blacks and other disabled minorities are nowhere to be found, or are cast in negative roles such as drug dealers or gang bangers, as portrayed in "Boyz in the Hood" and "Slam." Check out the characters and themes in movies like "Children of a Lesser God," "Rain Man," "Born on the 4th of July," and in last year's "The Other Sister,""Theory of Flight," "At First Sight" and "The Mighty." These characters and themes are uplifting, inspirational and they are positive. The 1992 movie "The Waterdance" features diverse characters in disabled roles, but the two main characters represent the balance of good and bad. Compare Wesley Snipes' character to the one portrayed by Eric Stolz and you will find out how Blacks and other minority characters in disabled roles are shaped and viewed in Hollywood.

Recent documentaries on the lives of disabled characters are receiving more attention. In 1999 a local disabled writer won an Oscar for his documentary "A Breathing Lesson: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien." This was a great movie, but I am still waiting for a documentary about a disabled minority in an empowering and positive role! Hollywood seems to be learning about disabled people, disability culture and arts. Hollywood has yet to realize that the disability rights movement and the new disability culture is still lacking diversity thus leaving different perspectives, views and lifestyles out. When you watch these movies with disabled characters and themes, ask yourself: do they represent the whole disabled community, or only the dominant culture?

Recently, the skin colors are changing on the big screen and in small independent films. In 1999 the small but wonderful independent film "Compensation," by Zeinabu Irene, appeared at the 2000 Sundance Independent Film Festival, but hasn’t made it to most theaters yet. This drama is about the life of a deaf African American woman in the early 1900’s, paralleled with the life of another deaf woman living in the 1990’s. "Compensation" examines the relationships of young black couples in which the female is deaf and the male is hearing.

Another recent documentary tells the story of a Black blind man of San Francisco, blues singer Paul Pena. In "Genghis Blues," Pena hears this strange sound coming from his radio that turns out to be Tuvan throat-singers. Pena masters Tuvan throat singing, and then travels across the world to win a Tuvan contest, discovering a newly independent life.

On top of this, it seemed that last year was the year of minorities in disabled lead roles. Denzel Washington in "The Bone Collector" plays a New York City detective who becomes a quadriplegic after a near fatal injury in the line of duty. Washington is left with only his voice and movement in one finger. What is new and shocking is Washington is not a drug dealer and at the end he is still disabled and he gets the girl! Wow!

In the "Green Mile," a movie adapted from a Stephen King novel, Micheal Clarke Duncan plays a Black giant with some kind of mental disability. It is revealed during the film that he is really an angel with healing powers, but is on death row for the murders of two white girls. To put a black disabled giant in the role of an angel is a new way to think about how we view angels!

And how about the recent movie, "The Color of Paradise?"It is the only movie I know of that deals with traditional Asian culture and blindness.

The latest gossip in Hollywood days is about a film on the life and work of Frida Kahlo, a famous Mexican artist, activist and teacher who was disabled from polio and a bus accident.

The recent increase in disabled minority roles is great, but not surprising. Hollywood, like our society in general, has been realizing that disability is a part of life, White or Black. Recently actors, actresses and sports legends have entered the gates of the disabled community. Many think Christopher Reeves started this turn around in the focus of Hollywood on people with disabilities. In reality, we all know that there were many that came before Christopher Reeves, i.e. Richard Prayor with MS and soul singer Teddy Pendergrass, who was in a car crash in the early 80’s that left him paralyzed. And we can't forget the one and only Tony Cox, a Black actor who is a midget and has been around in show business for ten years. He has starred in over thirty movies and commercials, making his most recent appearance in the hit "Me, Myself & Irene," which came out last year.

Although today I see disabled minorities or minorities in disabled roles, it’s still far too few, and most are males with limited roles. Take Tony Cox: he has been in the business since 1977 but his part in "Me, Myself & Irene" is the only one in which he had a leading role and ends up with the girl.

The words of Tony Cox hit it on the nail. He was interviewed by the San Francisco Bay View last year. He said, "Hollywood in some ways maybe views us, African Americans, as invisible. The success of Denzel Washington is great! But how many Denzels you see in Hollywood?" I would like to add to Mr. Cox’s statement by saying, 'how many Tony Coxes, a Black disabled actor, you see in Hollywood?'

By Leroy F Moore Jr. 12\00

Founder & Executive Director of Disability Advocates of Minorities Organization, DAMO.