Brow Beat

CinemAbility Director Jenni Gold on What It Will Take for Hollywood to Start Caring About Disability Representation

Marlee Matlin in CinemAbility, Jamie Foxx in Ray, and Johnny Eck in Freaks.
Marlee Matlin in CinemAbility, Jamie Foxx in Ray, and Johnny Eck in Freaks.
Gold Pictures, Universal Pictures, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Jenni Gold knows that her new film, CinemAbility: The Art of Inclusion, sounds like homework. “The word documentary hurts us, and then the word disability in a documentary—forget about it,” she said. “I probably wouldn’t be running out to see that film.” But CinemAbility doesn’t feel like homework when you’re watching it; Gold’s star-studded documentary is breezy, fascinating, and never didactic as it lays out the history of how disability has been portrayed in entertainment from the silent era to the current day.

While the politics of portraying race, sexuality, and gender have become a hot topic in Hollywood, disability is often left out of the conversation, even though the community is one of the most underrepresented groups in the industry. Slate spoke to Gold about what led her to make CinemAbility, the path to better representation, and creating the equivalent of the Bechdel test for disability. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Marissa Martinelli: CinemAbility manages to squeeze a lot into a relatively short amount of time: the long history of disability portrayals onscreen, the clichés that filmmakers keep falling back on, even the question of who should be allowed to play disabled roles. How did the idea for the documentary come about?

Jenni Gold: Somebody had written an article about me being a director who uses a wheelchair in the Los Angeles Times Valley edition, and some good friends of mine who are producers called me and said they wanted to talk to me about a great idea for a project. They wanted to do a documentary about me. I was like, “No, I haven’t done anything. What are you going to do? Follow me around? That would be boring.” I said, “If you’re interested in Hollywood and disability, I have a better idea.” I pitched it back to them, and they said, “Yeah, it sounds like a lot of work. I think we’re going to pass.”

I said, “Well, just so you know, I might do it, because I think it’s a great idea.” They were right. It was a lot of work. It took way longer than I thought. I am not a documentary filmmaker—I guess I am now, but I wasn’t. I had never done one before. I know about writing a script and doing a feature, a narrative. Documentary is a whole ’nother animal. It seems at first glance that it’s a lot easier, because you don’t have to write a script. It’s not. You don’t sometimes know which way it’s going, and it takes a long time. We did corporate screenings and test screenings, and everyone was so excited at the time, like, “You should go for the Oscar.” We’re a little independent company. We didn’t have the marketing machine and the funding to do that.

But now with #MeToo and everything that’s going on and female directors being talked about, really, for the first time in a national way, it’s like the stars aligned and now it was time to bring it to the masses.

How much has the documentary itself changed since those early screenings five years ago? You have a massive list of participants involved, and some of the footage goes so far back that a few have actually died.

We would tease that we better hurry up before the whole cast goes. It’s about fine-tuning it. The very first cut was four hours long, then two hours, and now we’re at an hour and a half. If you look at the Coen brothers, they made a director’s cut years later that actually was shorter than the original cut of Blood Simple. I love the Coen brothers, and I love Blood Simple. Usually with a director’s cut, people put in takes that they didn’t use. We have a lot of great stuff that we took out on the cutting room floor, but because of the internet, YouTube, and DVDs, we’re able to put those in the extra features or just out in the world for people to see.

How much has changed in the industry itself—if anything has changed—when it comes to disability representation? One thing I noticed in the most recent cut is that Speechless gets a few moments of screen time. Obviously, that show was not on the air in 2013.

Right, we tried to update it with stuff like that. Atypical is in there too now, and some other things that have come out since then that have been very positive. But there are also … we did a version where we used Me Before You, which just happened recently, instead of Million Dollar Baby, which is a few years back. [Me Before You] was originally a book, and basically it’s the same story, which is once you become physically disabled, it’s over, you might as well kill yourself. That’s the message that that tells. It was successful. People didn’t get that it wasn’t just this maudlin romance—it was a story about a guy who, although he was good looking, rich, had a beautiful girlfriend, because he couldn’t physically move, he better kill himself. That’s the message that’s being told.

For every step forward with something like Speechless, there’s a popular book like Me Before You, and it gets made into a film and no one considers that the message is damning for the football player who breaks his neck in high school or the cheerleader that falls off the pyramid. Yes, the industry is getting way better, especially in some of these portrayals, and hopefully we’re a catalyst towards that end. But still some of these other things are just accepted. And in diversity discussions in corporate America or even in Hollywood, when representation comes up, even in the Academy, people still weren’t talking about disability. They were excluding it. It remained the last bastion that you could overlook.

Why do you think that is? You’re right that there has been a lot of discussion about other marginalized groups in Hollywood, even if some of it is very recent. So why does disability keep getting left out of the conversation?

People don’t want to think about it. I have a great outtake of Ben Affleck where he talks about how people don’t know how to handle it because they’re afraid, they don’t know how they should talk to someone. It’s a very truthful moment, and he knows that because he has a friend who is a wheelchair user. His understanding of disability was very refreshing, and basically what he was saying, which is the truth, is that it makes people uncomfortable because at any second, deep down, they know they could also have a disability and eventually they all will. This is the one minority group that anyone can join at any time, and it crosses barriers of race, gender, sexuality. It’s 20 percent of the population.

Speaking of Ben Affleck, you have a wide variety of people in the industry participating in CinemAbility, from deaf or wheelchair-using actors like Marlee Matlin and Daryl “Chill” Mitchell to people like Affleck and Jamie Foxx, who have played disabled characters. How did you decide who should be involved?

Because we cover from the silent era to today, we had to make some rules. At first, we were even going to include advertising, but that’s biting off way too much. We weren’t going to cover any other documentary. It had to be narrative with structure. It had to be either a feature or TV show. We made one exception for a short because it was so good, the one with Nick Vujicic, Butterfly Circus. I couldn’t resist. But basically it was just feature films and television shows, and we had to narrow from a list. Some films were fantastic but couldn’t fit the 90 minutes, so we have another special feature about them. Like, Soul Surfer is a great story, and we interviewed Kevin Sorbo and talked about it. But it depends on who you can get, who is available, and how what they have to say fits into the overall arc of the story.

I started this thing called the “Gold test,” which is—are you familiar with the Bechdel test?

Sure.

I thought, well, if they have that for women, we should have one with people with disabilities. So originally the test was “Is there a character with a disability who is not stereotypical and is fully dimensional?” That was it. Well, most films had nobody. They didn’t exist at all. Even in the background, walking past, you didn’t see anyone signing or with a Seeing Eye dog or a wheelchair. You saw no one with a cane. People with disabilities in films didn’t exist. Everything was failing my test.

I wanted to lower the bar, so now it’s a two-stage test. Is there anyone in the world at all in the film or TV show that has a disability—in the background, under five lines, anything?

OK, that’s stage one. What’s stage two?

Is that character shown in a positive, nonstereotypical, three-dimensional way? And the way I put it is they’re not defined by their disability. A lot of films, that’s what it’s about. It’s about the struggle because they want to climb that mountain. It doesn’t have to be about that—they could be the love interest or neighbor. It doesn’t have to be that complicated.

You really delve into the history of disabled representation in the documentary, going back to the silent era. Did you find any examples that pass the Gold test?

I knew of Ironside, but I didn’t expect it to be a positive portrayal because it was made in the ’60s. I knew [the protagonist] continued his career [as a detective], but I didn’t know about the part where he’s told he’s paralyzed. The way they did it in the show, the doctor and the nurse telling him are very dramatic about it, and he’s like, “What’s your problem? I’ve had people confess to murders faster than that.” That was amazing, and it surprised me.

The other surprise was Miss Susan back in the ’50s. I had no idea about her and the fact that she was the first actor with a disability on daytime television. [Susan Peters] was being groomed to be the next big star with Random Harvest, she got nominated for an Oscar, and then she had this accident. They developed a film for her, they were very supportive and kept her career going. It was pretty advanced for the time, but you know, I think this comes down to the people around you. If they are enlightened and inclusive, then maybe it didn’t matter that it was the ’50s. So you have these moments of wonderful portrayals then, and then something like Me Before You two years ago. It kind of ruined all my speeches about how we’ve become a more inclusive society as time has marched on and more evolved and less stereotypical and that portrayals of disability will evolve too.

It sounds like progress isn’t as linear as you were expecting. What will it take, do you think, for there to be a meaningful change in Hollywood?

When audiences start rejecting those portrayals. If a book like Me Before You comes out and no one gets sucked into it and it doesn’t get made into a movie because audiences are like, “This is old and dated,” maybe it will stop. Because Hollywood will make whatever sells, you know? Because Me Before You sold well, they’re apt to do it again. But hopefully films like CinemAbility will kind of open those eyes and they’ll see things differently.

The focus in the film is mostly limited to how disability is portrayed onscreen, but what about behind the scenes?

One of the questions I asked everybody was have you ever worked with anyone behind the scenes with a disability? And everyone says, “I’ve worked in the business for 20 years, for 30 years, whatever, and I don’t know why, but no, I can’t think of anyone.”

When I was in film school, when I first talked to the professor to go into film school, he asked, “Do you know what the odds are for women directors? You use a wheelchair—you know what your odds are?” I told him I was doing it anyway, and he said he was just testing me. But a lot of people hear that and decide to do something that’s more realistic. Luckily for me, I’m stubborn, and it’s the only thing I’ve wanted to do. It was my passion, so nothing was going to stop it. But that’s rare, right? You know a lot of people might be more logical. And when they look out there and they don’t see other people doing it, they think there’s no opportunity.

That’s true for disabled actors too, right? Filmmakers always say they can’t cast actors with disabilities because they’re not famous—but then there are so few opportunities for disabled actors to become famous. In the documentary, William H. Macy even has a revelation, in what seems to be real time, that the screenplay he’s writing has no roles for disabled actors.

There was another one when I asked Beau Bridges if he had ever worked with anyone with a disability, and he said that back in the ’60s he used to do a rider on his contract that would say we need people of color on the films when he’s hired. He was like, “Now that you mention it, I’m going to do that for disability too, because I never thought of it before, and there’s plenty of jobs.” I love those moments when people realize stuff on camera.

How do you spark more revelations like that, without confronting every single actor or producer in Hollywood individually?

I’d love every studio to do a CinemAbility screening. We’ve done one at Universal so far, and we want to do one at every studio. Scott Silveri had reached out to me when he heard about our testing, prior to even launching Speechless, and we became friends. I made sure that his people went to see it and we could start the conversation. We even did a Delta Air Lines screening for like a 500-seat theater, and people went nuts. 

What Hollywood doesn’t know—and hopefully with enough people seeing the film, they’ll start to get the message—is that while the annual expendable income of the tween market is coveted by Hollywood, the annual disposable income of the people with disabilities is even greater than the tween market. It’s huge.

So there’s an economic incentive to disabled representation.

There is, that they’re not thinking about. [The documentary] allows them to think of things they hadn’t thought of before or wouldn’t have noticed if we hadn’t done these test screenings. I had people who are very energized afterwards, and they want to talk and they won’t leave! They ask questions, which is crazy exciting for me and a little bit daunting.

It made such an impact, but I still feel like Horton Hears a Who. Remember that? Like, “We’re here, we’re here,” and it doesn’t break through. But hopefully people will realize who’s in it and what they’re talking about very honestly and that it’s entertaining and funny. I don’t think people expect the humor that we have. I wanted to open up a conversation but not force my opinion on people. I mean, no one has even noticed what’s missing in all these films, including myself, because I was raised on the same diet of media that we all have been, right? A lot of this was eye-opening for me too. We don’t have that marketing machine to get on major national billboards and news and have people talk about it, but maybe we can get enough voices to be heard.