The controversy over “Tropic Thunder” brings to mind other recent movies that have sparked controversy about portrayals of persons with disabilities. Here is our list for the Hall of Shame, listed in order of year of release.
“The Ringer” (2005)
Our Hall of Shame would be much larger if Access Press had included the genre some of us know as teenage horror/gross-out films. Those seem to pile stereotype upon stereotype, with no group left unscathed.
And that’s the difficulty with movies for younger viewers, such as the crowd “Tropic Thunder” is drawing in. It’s what these viewers take away from a movie that can shape attitudes for the rest of their lives. Any movie with MTV star Johnny Knoxville as a star and the Farrelly brothers as producers is certain to draw the youthful movie crowd. “The Ringer” is the story of a young man who poses as a disabled athlete so that he can compete in the Special Olympics and help win an obviously rigged bet. Knoxville is Steve, the young man who is part of this twisted scheme.
What surprised many people about “The Ringer” is how it was embraced by the Special Olympics and the National Down Syndrome Society. Both groups had quite a say in the making of the film, which provided work for more than 150 actors with disabilities.
The reviews and blog postings about the film were very mixed, with some hailing the portrayal of athletes with disabilities and others saying the movie only would perpetuate stereotypes. This article from The New York Times describes the involvement of disabled actors and how the experience was positive for them and for groups that advocate for them: www.nytimes.com/
Ragged Edge had a much different take, at: www.raggededgemagazine.com/
What made me uncomfortable about this film was what message young movie goers, disabled or not, would take away from it. My concern was that it still perpetuated stereotypes on some ways. Some of the reactions on the Internet Movie Database were compelling to read, especially one from the mother of youngster with developmental disabilities who explained why she would not take her son to see “The Ringer,” “Forrest Gump” and other films with a similar message. She too was concerned with what he would take away from seeing these films.
Anyone interested in reactions to movies, regardless of the movie topic or message, should check out the Internet Movie Database, at www.imdb.com What’s great about this web site is that it includes message boards about each movie, as well as a parent’s guide. The comments on movies, especially movies involving persons with disabilities, are usually as varied as they are thought-provoking.
“Million Dollar Baby” (2004)
This Clint Eastwood movie, which also starred Morgan Freeman and Hillary Swank, drew rave reviews and many honors for individual portrayals and the film itself. Swank’s portrayal of Maggie, a young woman boxer trained by Eastwood, netted her second Academy Award.
Yet “Million Dollar Baby” was assailed by the disability community for its ending (spoiler alert!) which centered on the assisted suicide of a disabled main character. The character’s transformation and the attitudes surrounding that transformation were ridiculous. It was as if we weren’t even dealing with the same character.
In his review on the Ragged Edge web site, Steve Drake of Not Dead Yet describes “Million Dollar Baby” as a “corny, melodramatic assault on people with disabilities.” Drake dissects the movie’s ending, point by point, to explain how illogical it is. One would have to know nothing about modern medical care, accommodations or services for persons with disabilities or event basic nursing home security to believe any of it.
Other movie characters’ disabilities were also criticized by advocates as unrealistic, stereotyped or lacking in perspective. One character is partially blind. Another is developmentally disabled. Read Drake’s review at: www.ragged-edge-mag.com/
“In Her Shoes” (2002)
A movie featuring a trio of very talented female stars, Shirley Mac-laine, Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette, “In Her Shoes” was marketed mainly to women. Diaz and Collette are sisters and total opposites, with one a fun-loving, irresponsible party girl and the other a hard-working, dour attorney. The sisters have all kinds of issues—a mother’s death, a (stereotypically) mean stepmother, jealousy, sibling rivalry, etc. The title’s shoe reference is to a closet of shoes owned but seldom worn by Collette’s character. Of course, they fit Diaz’ character perfectly, which causes another source of friction between the siblings.
The sisters live together until having a huge falling-out over (what else?) a man. Diaz then goes to live with their grandmother, portrayed by Mac-laine.
During the course of the film it’s revealed that Maggie has dyslexia, which has cost her all kinds of work and personal opportunities over the years. Although most movie-goers would develop a sense of empathy for Maggie’s plight, the movie portrays learning disabilities as easily overcome by the love of one’s family and friends. Anyone who has ever coped with a learning disability, or had a friend or family member with a learning disability, will no doubt cringe at the ending.
Most reviews were not terribly excited about “In Her Shoes,” although few savaged the movie. Most reviews glossed over the dyslexia issues and the improbable ending. My favorite comments came from WBAI, which had this review: http://wbai.org/
A movie starring Christina Ricci, “Pumpkin” centers on a young woman named Carolyn whose sorority takes on the community service project of coaching athletes who are disabled.
Ricci also produced the movie. Her character starts out as the typical blonde, vapid, privileged young sorority sister stereotype (which itself is unfair to sorority members everywhere). Through the sorority’s community service project, she falls in love with a young, developmentally disabled man nicknamed Pumpkin. Of course this turn of events changes her life and makes her a better and noble person, but it brings disruption to the lives of all others around her. (Again we have a disabled person with a stereotypically overprotective mother, a stock character in many movies as you’ll see in another review.)
Like our other Hall of Shame contenders, this movie had its staunch defenders and detractors. Some critics liked Pumpkin; others consigned it to the movie compost bin. Ann Hornaday’s review in the Washington Post notes that “disability, whether mental or physical, has become the new blackface—an acceptable foil for cruelty, base humor and false piety in an industry that prides itself as progressive and humanists.”
Hornaday also describes “Pumpkin” as a movie that cannot decide which type of message it is trying to convey. Is it supposed to be meaningful? Irreverent? It’s hard to decide.
Read Hornaday’s review at:
“The Other Sister” (1999)
This movie received decidedly mixed reviews for its portrayal of a young woman, with a developmental disability making her way in the world after years away from her family at a school for persons with disabilities.
Juliette Lewis stars as Carla, the main character and the other sister referred to in the title. Carla’s homecoming is an uneasy one. Her father (Tom Skerritt) encourages Carla to follow her dreams of going to school, getting an apartment, making new friends and becoming a veterinary assistant. Her overprotective mother (Diane Keaton) is much more skeptical and fearful about her daughter’s abilities. The family dynamic of members who are supportive and members who are embarrassed by Carla would ring true for many families, but the way the movie makes its points is about as subtle as a slap in the face at times.
Spoiler alert! There are the predictable scenes centered on Carla causing a commotion at public events, including a dog show/benefit where mutts are let out of their cages. The part of the movie in which she and her new boyfriend explore sex is just too cutesy for words.
Film critic Roger Ebert criticized “The Other Sister” for having “no serious knowledge of developmental disabilities and no interest in learning and teaching” and for using mental retardation as a “gimmick” and a “plot device.”
Read Ebert’s review at: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/