I have been meaning to address the 37th AFI Life Achievement Award ever since I saw it being presented to Michael Douglas and broadcasted on TV Land channel, Sunday, July 19, 2009. I saw this on the website the next day. Repeated viewing allowed me to write down what Mr. Douglas said in his acceptance speech.
After mentioning that he has been closely working with the U.N. for the past 11 years Mr. Douglas said, ”…the one thing that strikes me wherever I go is that American films export our culture in a way that reflects incredible well on our Nation and on our values.”
The audience gives applause and there are a couple stumbling words that I cannot make out and then he says, “…reminds although we call it the entertainment industry it does so much more than just entertain. I mean this industry serves as the best American Ambassador we can offer the world, it truly does.”
So if “American films export our culture in a way that reflects incredible well on our Nation and on our values” then what does American films say –
- When they nearly always exclude those with a disAbility from being featured or simply include in supporting roles?
- What does it say in the very few American film exceptions the portrayals are nearly always very stereotypical (the 3 categories of disAbled stereotypes, 1) of being all about the disAbility, 2) surrounded with a political agenda, or 3) are predictably inspirational) characters and stories?
- Finally what does it say when out of the very few yet very stereotypical portrayals occur, they nearly always have someone who has no idea what it is like to live with a disAbility write, direct and act in those roles? Well intentioned able bodied and sometimes very well acted – but still unauthentic and ingenuous.
The Best American Ambassador
And if, as Mr. Douglas said, “…this industry serves as the best American Ambassador we can offer the world”, then I have to ask what does this say about the authentic portrayals of those with a disAbility that can represent themselves but are highly discriminated against in this industry? Do we need to show the SAG report published in 2005 detailing the incredible details of discrimination? And if not do we have any other studies or reports from the industry on its practices and the results that would dispute this? How about interviewing any of the 1200 actors who knowing the discrimination still admitted to have some sort of disAbility on the SAG application? Or any of the union member in their Performers with Disabilities committee? How often do they work? How much has changed since this scathing report came out? And why is everyone in this industry ignoring these findings?
Is it because those of us who are paraplegics, or have other forms of physically noticeable challenges – that are so different from the beautiful able bodied Hollywood?
Genes. It does a Body Good!
Michael Douglas followed it up directly after the remarks above with this saying, “Which raises the question, ‘why am I up here’? Right, right, in getting this lifetime achievement award. You know what it is?” Jack Nicholson, who presented the award, gives his answer but his microphone is not hot, so we do not hear what he said to Mr. Douglas’ question, but seems to either be replying to Mr. Nicholson and/or is simply answering his own question by stating, “No, you know what it is? It’s great genes!”
Hmmm? I am sure he was joking but obviously making reference to his mother and father who is incredibly talented and good looking. But probably unknowingly he also spoke a universal Hollywood truth since how many actors or other industry people have been given a Life Achievement award that has a disAbility? And I am not talking about those who acquired theirs after their distinguished careers were primarily in the rear view mirror – or at
least made a significant body of work already – as they acquired a disAbility from illness, injury, or age?
With Great Power comes Great Responsibility
When will Hollywood players and makers listen to their own words? Even when they admit that the “entertainment
industry does so much more than just entertain”, why do they still dismiss and at best marginalize and paint excuses to continue to repress fair and equal opportunities for the expression of authentic voices, visions, and performances from those with a disAbility, and again I am speaking only of those who can
represent themselves, on either side of the camera?
If you say “they do not do that, they do not discriminate against anyone” – then I ask you, where are the movies with authentic representation in non-stereotypical images and portrayals of those with a disAbility? Do you have any idea how significant my disAbility is to my identity? Would it surprise you that since it is an
extremely challenging life – above and beyond what everyone else has because we have those same shared challenges – but the additional ones associated with a disAbility – that include physical, emotional, economical, and social challenges – that this is as significant to our identity as is our age, gender, and race? Once you can accept that, as we have to, then maybe you can see how we have been living with the entertainment industry using “Al Jolson’s in a wheelchair” in movies and television AND just how offensive that is? Maybe if it weren’t for 98% of the already very few representations we have, are Al Jolson’s in a wheelchair, then maybe it wouldn’t hurt as much. Does anybody care?
Where in movies and television are the voices and heroes representing the 56 million Americans with a disAbility?
This is the question that I’ve been asking Hollywood. But I have also been providing the answers from the work and development that has consumed me for over 14 years of my life. This includes a full time campaign raising awareness – for over 3 years – with over a hundred different Hollywood people – many with repeated attempts (wanna see my database of times and dates) and yet I can count the responses on one hand!
So obviously the Michael Douglas’ Hollywood doesn’t like it when we, the people with a disAbility trying to portray and represent ourselves in movies and television ask the question – so what will it take for you, the mainstream audience, the ticket buying people, to ask them the question? Where are the voices and heroes of the 56 million Americans with a disAbility?
And if they give you the same “non-answer”, I would suggest you point them to begin their search for the answer by visiting http://AbilitiesUnited.com