Hollywood has a history of snubbing minority groups, but there’s been some incremental progress recently. Just look at “Master of None,” “Creed,” “Transparent,” “Straight Outta Compton” and “Fresh Off the Boat.”
Disabled characters, however, remain an anomaly, and when they do show up, they’re usually either tragic victims or sources of inspiration.
That may be changing. Activists are outraged at the new movie “Me Before You” for its disabled lead character who feels his life is no longer worth living.
The spoiler-phobic should be warned: There’s no way to explain this debate without divulging the ending of the just-released movie and its source material, Jojo Moyes’s 2012 novel. The movie stars Sam Claflin as Will, 30, who was paralyzed in an accident two years ago. Before that, he was a posh London hotshot with sporty hobbies. Now he barely leaves his parents’ estate. He’s plotting his assisted suicide when his mother hires a new caregiver: the effervescent Louisa Clark (Emilia Clarke).
Long story short, the two fall in love. But even then, Will decides to die. “I can’t be the kind of man who just accepts this,” he tells an inconsolable Lou.
Moyes received laudatory emails from disabled readers when the novel came out. But a major complaint with the movie is the decision to end the story with Will’s suicide.
“I understand that it’s just a movie and it’s just one story but when this is the predominant narrative that the media keeps showing, then I think we need to start having a conversation about it,” said Emily Ladau, a disability activist who wrote a takedown of the movie’s overused victim and inspiration tropes for Salon.
Moyes didn’t pull the story out of thin air. She heard a news report about Daniel James, a rugby player who had been paralyzed after an accident on the field. He traveled with his parents to Dignitas in Switzerland, a destination for people who want to end their lives.
“I found that deeply shocking,” Moyes said over the phone from Norway, where she’s doing a movie tour. “I couldn’t understand his thinking; I couldn’t understand his parents’ thinking. And I guess, as an ex-journalist, I decided to read around as much as I could. It wouldn’t leave my head.”
What she realized from her research was that this 23-year-old man “just refused to adapt to his new life,” she said. “As a writer I looked at the unusual circumstances of that — because most people do adapt — and I thought what would it be like to be him? What would it be like to be his mother? And what would it be like to be someone trying to change his mind?”
All of this seems like fair game for a bestseller, right?
But activists argue that seeing the same grim outcome for disabled characters can be damaging. Lawrence Carter-Long, an adviser to the ReelAbilities film festival, became an activist after seeing “Million Dollar Baby” in a theater, thinking it would be “Rocky in a sports bra.” (More spoilers coming.) Instead, Clint Eastwood’s character helps Hilary Swank’s quadriplegic former boxer kill herself. During the credits, to Carter-Long’s surprise, the audience applauded. Viewers he spoke to after the movie thought that even though it was tragic that the main character wanted to die, it was also understandable.
“It dawned on me that that’s probably an unspoken assumption and even an unexamined assumption people have about my life,” said Carter-Long, who was born with cerebral palsy.
But it isn’t just the silent judgments that worry Carter-Long — it’s the policy issue. In some places, it’s become easier to die than to live.
“In different states, insurance companies will pay for somebody’s medication in order to take their own life,” Carter-Long said, “but somebody has to go to Kickstarter to get a wheelchair they need.”
“So many of us are fighting just to live,” he added. “So if you see a movie where somebody, in almost a cavalier fashion, says, ‘I’d rather die,’ it doesn’t resonate.”
After the novel came out, the Reeve Foundation did applaud Moyes for writing Will not just a quadriplegic character but as a romantic lead. And the novel unquestionably sheds light on some of the obstacles people with paralysis face.
But the movie version prompted another charged question: Why isn’t Will portrayed by a disabled actor?
“Othello was [once] played by Laurence Olivier in blackface and we would never think in this day and age of casting a white person to play a black person,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “Yet routinely people with disabilities are played by able-bodied people.”
Ladau agrees, though what she really wants to see is disabled actors portrayed in all kinds of roles.
“We can be the love interest, we can be the best friend without the tragedy centering on disability, we can be the superhero, we can be the adventurer, the explorer,” she said.
Will is not the first disabled character Moyes has written, and she stresses that he was never meant to stand in for an entire community. This was one story about one person making a decision, while all the other characters in the book look on with horror.
Even so, she added, “It’s a good thing that this debate has come up because a lot of these issues need to be debated.”
Going forward, there’s pressure for other writers to get it right. Next up is “Speechless,” a sitcom starring Minnie Driver as the mother of a disabled boy, and the movie “The Fundamentals of Caring,” in which Paul Rudd plays a young man’s caregiver. Thanks to the response to “Me Before You,” those projects face a new world, in which disability activists feel more empowered than ever to share their feelings.
“What’s happening now is people with disabilities are able to immediately coordinate with each other … and send that message directly to the studios,” Carter-Long said. “We’ve seen a galvanizing effort both here in the states and particularly in the U.K. of people saying, ‘Wait a minute. We’re tired of this. We’ve seen it all before.’ ”