Given how much the headlines have been fixating on the incident that occurred during Sunday night’s Academy Awards ceremony, you might have missed that CODA just made history. The indie film about the only hearing daughter (Emilia Jones) in a Deaf fishing family first premiered at Sundance more than a year ago and found a home on Apple TV+. Despite being nominated for just three Oscars, CODA gained steam over the course of awards season and on Sunday won in all of its categories: Best Supporting Actor for Troy Kotsur, Adapted Screenplay for writer-director Sian Heder, and, yes, Best Picture. As it was the first movie with a predominantly deaf cast to be up for the big award, we were watching.
While Kotsur’s Best Supporting Actor win was just about as universally celebrated within the Deaf community as a thing can be these days, CODA itself has been met with more mixed reactions. It’s a film made by hearing people and centering a hearing character, and because of this, it relies on stereotypes in its overarching characterization of the deaf experience. The fact that the Rossi parents (Kotsur and Marlee Matlin) expect their teen daughter to interpret for them in situations where the Americans With Disabilities Act legally entitles them to a real interpreter—like in a doctor’s office or in court—is a choice made to get laughs or create false stakes. The notion that deaf people don’t understand the concept of music and would be automatically dismissive that their hearing child likes to sing, as Matlin’s character is, is deeply silly. (Prior to Kotsur’s win, Matlin was the only deaf performer ever to win an Oscar, in 1987.)
And yet. This is also a movie that is 40 percent in American Sign Language. It’s buoyed by the talent of a predominantly deaf cast. The older brother of the family, Leo (Daniel Durant), actively pushes back against his parents’ reliance on his sister Ruby as family interpreter, and ultimately it’s his advocacy, not Ruby’s, that sets the family on a better path.
For me, CODA’s shortcomings are less an indictment of the film itself and more a reminder of how desperately we need more deaf representation on-screen and especially behind the scenes. It’s unfortunate that CODA, which at its heart is an intimate story about a single family, is expected to bear the weight of fully representing millions of people. I laughed a lot at Kotsur’s performance as Frank Rossi, a poet of filth, and I appreciated that the Rossis were sexual beings rather than chaste or infantilized, as is often the case for disabled characters. Even when its depiction of deafness didn’t ring true or was a little too saccharine for my general taste, I was fully invested in CODA, the same way I watched Sound of Metal to root for the deaf actors or devoured the hot, soapy mess that was Netflix’s reality series Deaf U. Deaf people deserve hot, soapy messes too! I like seeing deaf people, and my language, on the screen, and I want more of it.
CODA has undeniably pushed the industry in the right direction, first and foremost by casting actual deaf people in deaf roles. The decision to screen the film in theaters with open captions—captions that are on-screen for all, rather than requiring an additional step to view them—was also unique. These may seem like little things to a hearing viewer, but to me, having sat through a lot of films where “cripped-up” hearing people sign badly, or having arrived at the movie theater only to be told that someone forgot to charge the caption goggles so I have to come back some other time, they are achievements.
As for the Oscars themselves, for a show that didn’t even have a wheelchair ramp until last year, the ceremony was a big leap forward. I screamed at my television when Amy Schumer called CODA her favorite movie in ASL. I came running back into the room when I saw deaf people on-screen during a Snapchat commercial. And ASL interpretation for the entire broadcast was offered live on the Oscars’ YouTube channel , which was a historic first. Actually seeing an interpreter onstage during the Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture speeches was even better. That the camera operators actually stayed focused on Kotsur for the entirety of his acceptance speech—instead of cutting away, as the show has done in the past when Matlin has been onstage—was also a big production win.
But the ASL interpretation on the Oscars on YouTube was spotty; many deaf people didn’t even know it existed, and because it was just an interpreter feed, and not an interpreter embedded atop the regular broadcast, it required two devices to actually watch the show. A phantom hand sometimes floated into the frame, obscuring and distracting from the interpretation. Sometimes the feed was ahead, sometimes it fell behind, depending on commercials and one’s internet speed for running various devices simultaneously. For a while, it cut out completely.
While I appreciate this as a first attempt and found the interpreters themselves to be great, these failings of accessibility are again the result of a hearing-centered understanding of what access actually means, and ultimately of the production and network being unwilling to go the full mile when it comes to inclusion. Requiring the deaf person to run multiple devices and feeds—if they even have the bandwidth and equipment—is not equity, but a reminder that most would rather not see reminders of us at all.
If the interpreter had been integrated into the television broadcast using decades-old picture-in-picture technology, we could have watched alongside our hearing peers in sync, and I doubt hearing viewers’ experience would have suffered much missing out on an inch or two of empty stage in the corner of their screens. (Also, they would’ve gotten a sweet ASL interpretation of “Dos Oruguitas,” as opposed to the captions just reading “singing foreign language” for three minutes, and a priceless expression on the interpreter’s face as the feed of the Smith-Rock Debacle cut in and out.) For me, Hollywood’s real commitment to inclusion will only be measurable next year—will the show have an ASL interpreter for viewers even if there are no deaf nominees?
If the film world seeks to be truly inclusive, there will be more deaf nominees; there must be. Only a multitude of deaf stories can diminish both the pressures and expectations of representation, as well as the dangers misrepresentation can pose. And allowing space for stories created by and centering deaf people is the only way to approach authentic depictions of a multifaceted and truly diverse community. It’s easy to be frustrated at an industry that time and again has spoken over us, excluded us, and appropriated our language and culture. But I don’t want the past to obscure the real progress being made, or the possibility of an inclusive future.
For today, I choose joy; activism without it just isn’t sustainable. I hope that we are at the very beginning of an explosion of deaf-centric stories, stories that showcase the intersectionality of the deaf experience, as well as films featuring deaf actors and characters that have nothing to do with deafness at all. I’m hopeful that seeing Troy Kotsur being awarded the highest honor in his field—and accepting that award in ASL with the entire audience hand-waving in applause—will do more to emphasize deaf people’s talent and worth than whatever viewers might assume about an entire community from the fictional character he played. I am so thrilled for and proud of the deaf people who made CODA as successful as it was. May the doors hang wide-open in their wake. And may we not have to wait another 35 years.