There remains much in showbiz that remains unevolved (we’re still looking at you, Hollywood Press Association), and near the top of the list is ableism. Not as well known as, say, sexism or racism, ableism is equally ugly, detailed in the Oxford Dictionary as “discrimination in favor of able-bodied people.” AccessLiving.org puts a finer point on it, adding that ableism is “rooted in the assumption that disabled people require ‘fixing’” and “like racism and sexism, ableism classifies entire groups of people as ‘less than,’ and includes harmful stereotypes, misconceptions, and generalizations of people with disabilities.”
I’m putting all this headiness up front, before I ask you to consider a crackling good nail-biter, “See for Me,” opening Friday, Jan. 21 at The Flicks. “See for Me” is also the name of a fictional app, used by the film’s hero, Sophie, a former champion skier who has lost her sight to a rare, retinal degenerative disease. Bitter and stubbornly independent, Sophie agrees to house-sit a friend;s elaborate home — a secluded fortress which soon after Sophie’s arrival, is under invasion by thieves seeking a hidden fortune. Sophie’s initial defense? You guessed it, the “See for Me” app, which connects her to a volunteer, “seeing” on Sophie’s behalf. Sure, you may think that we’ve been on this journey before, particularly in 1967’s “Wait Until Dark.” But there is much more here than modern-day technology added to “See for Me’s” plot. The real headline here is that while then-megastar Audrey Hepburn pretended to be blind in “Wait Until Dark,” the hero of “See for Me” is embodied by Skyler Davenport, a wonderful actor who suffered their own permanent vision loss following a stroke. For the record, they are also non-binary. Yes, “See for Me” is 2022’s first must-see film. More importantly, it’s a must-support creative effort.
For generations, Hollywood has nearly turned the genre of disability-related films into a trope: “Johnny Belinda,” “My Left Foot,” “Radio,” “Rain Man,” “Forrest Gump” … need I go on? Variety reports “since 1988, one third of Oscar’s lead actor winners were portraying a character with a disability.” And just a few years ago, IndieWire counted 60 Best Actor nominees who had played characters with disabilities.
“In my opinion, in order to be an incredible, or even credible cast, any visibly disabled roles must be played by actors who actually have that disability,” said Mayson Zayid, an actor with Cerebral Palsy, in her 2013 TED Talk where she takes on ableism. “It is offensive, inauthentic, and cartoonish to have non-disabled actors play disabled on screen.”
Dominick Evans, filmmaker, and activist with Muscular Dystrophy, puts it more directly:
“We’re looking at representation in film as low as 1% for a population that is around 20% of the world.”
Kudos to Canada-based Wilding Pictures for having the sense of producing a heart-racing thriller in “See for Me,” and the sensibility of introducing star-in-the-making Skyler Davenport in their feature film debut.
On the small screen this month, you’ll want to make some time for the superb documentary, “Not Going Quietly,” an inspiring story about disability, activism, and wellness.
A rising star in progressive politics and a new father, Ady Barkan’s life was upended when he was diagnosed with ALS in his early 30s. A few years later, Barkan was described as “the most powerful activist in America” when his “Be a Hero” campaign landed him on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 Most influential People of 2020. That also secured him a speaking spot at the 2020 Democratic National Convention.
The doc chronicles how Barkan and a motley crew of activists barnstormed the U.S., igniting a movement for universal healthcare. And director Nicholas Bruckman brilliantly balances Barkan’s advocacy for the health of others with his own handicap. Facing the loss of his natural speaking voice, Barkan recognizes the power of his words and personal story to spark change. Ultimately, his own illness makes strikingly clear how our systems of care are in meltdown.
“‘Not Going Quietly’ connects us with a brave and generous protagonist who, in the hands of these gifted filmmakers, becomes an active participant in the telling of his own story,” said Chris White, executive director of PBS’s POV, which will showcase the documentary. “His spirit and courage are an inspiration and reminder of our shared responsibility to care for each other.”
And there’s plenty of star power behind the lens of “Not Going Quietly.” Bradley Whitford (“The West Wing”) Mark Duplass (“The Morning Show”) and Jay Duplass (“Transparent”) are all executive producers.
Catch “Not Going Quietly” on Idaho Public Television on Monday, Jan. 24 at 9 p.m. And you’ll probably want to DVR it; it’s worth another screening with your extended family which hopefully triggers an extended conversation on ableism.