Representation of people with disabilities in the entertainment industry has been a topic of debate that has emerged several times in recent history. The debate generally revolves around three main issues: whether the portrayal of the person with the disability is accurate, whether the story being told exploits living with a disability to advance a theme of pity or inspiration, and whether actors with disabilities have fair opportunities to secure roles in productions.
The recent release of The Upside, starring Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, and Nicole Kidman, is the latest movie to reignite the debate. The Upside is a remake of the 2011 French film The Intouchables. The movie is based on the true story of a wealthy man who becomes a quadriplegic and hires a woefully unqualified man off the street to be his caregiver. Despite their different backgrounds, the two men learn a lot about each other and themselves through their unlikely friendship. While at times the movie can be predictable and clichéd, it does a decent job of portraying some of the issues that people deal with while living with a spinal cord injury.
The debate during the lead up to the release of The Upside has been focused on the availability of roles for actors with disabilities. Bryan Cranston has been criticized by some for taking a role that could have otherwise been filled by an actor with a spinal cord injury. Cranston has defended his decision to take the role by explaining that he spent a considerable amount of time with people with spinal cord injuries and their caregivers to better understand what it is like to live with such a disability. Furthermore, he has argued that there are no actors with disabilities with the potential to draw money like he does, and that the ultimate responsibility of the actors is to make money for themselves and the studios.
Cranston’s blunt answer reflects the true motive of the entertainment industry. Like any other industry, it provides a service or a product for the public and it exists to make money for those who work in it. Considering this, it is not realistic to expect an unknown actor with a disability to be cast alongside Kevin Hart and Nicole Kidman in a big-budget Hollywood production. However, this does not excuse the fact that there needs to be access to more opportunities for people with disabilities in the entertainment industry. In order for someone to become as well-known as Bryan Cranston, they need to have a chance to make a name for themselves. Casting people with disabilities in a variety of roles, from background extra to leading actor, would go a long way to achieve this. Additionally, casting people with disabilities as “normal” characters would be helpful. Instead of casting somebody with a disability as the “disabled friend,” they should be cast as the friend who just happens to be disabled. The focus should be on the person and their personality, not their disability. Casting a person with a disability to play a role that primarily focuses on the disability leads to typecasting and fewer creative options. As with any industry, the barriers to employment need to be broken down sooner rather than later.
The Upside is one of very few widely publicized movies in which a character with a spinal cord injury is the main protagonist. Most recently, Me Before You was the center of controversy because of the main character’s decision to go through with assisted suicide. The movie was widely criticized and rightfully so. Despite the criticism surrounding The Upside, an opportunity exists to advance the cause for those living with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities. While casting Bryan Cranston to play a character with a disability may not be an ideal scenario, the movie will undoubtedly raise awareness of spinal cord injuries. The fact that a debate about representation of people with disabilities has gained so much attention is a sign of progress in the right direction. Hopefully, this newfound attention will lead to new opportunities for people with disabilities.
Written by Mike Franz
Mike is a C6 quad from Michigan who has been injured 16+ years.