Coda, a drama about a majority-deaf family, is one of the most anticipated films of 2021. Is it a watershed moment after years of patronising portrayals, wonders Jack King?

With the advent and now-ubiquitousness of streaming, the massive disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the much-discussed demise of the leading man, Hollywood is more in flux than ever. While not all change is entirely positive, one unquestionably positive development is the proliferation of more stories that centre on previously marginalised groups and demographics within the mainstream – from the early 2010s emergence of a strain of newly en vogue queer cinema, including films like A Single Man, Carol, and Call Me by Your Name, to the way in which films like Black Panther and Moonlight have marked a new epoch for black creatives both behind and in front of the camera.

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Another significant shift in representation appears to be underway, this time toward a more nuanced, powerful cinematic depiction of deafness. Previously relegated to reductive bit-parts and comedic relief, deaf characters have become full-fledged protagonists in films such as Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck (2017), John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place (2018) and its sequel, and Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal (2019). Combine that with a new wave of deaf actors on the rise, such as Millicent Simmonds, who starred in both A Quiet Place films; Lauren Ridloff, who will play one of the lead superheroes in Marvel’s Eternals; and Shoshannah Stern, who played the first deaf doctor on Grey’s Anatomy. and it appears that deaf people are finally gaining the visibility in the industry that they have long been denied.

Coda, a coming-of-age indie film that was the talk of this year’s Sundance Film Festival and was picked up for worldwide distribution by Apple TV+ in a record $25 million coup, is one film out this week that could shift the dial even further. It’s a remake of the French film La Famille Bélier (2014), and it stars Emilia Jones as Ruby, the only hearing person in a deaf family living in Massachusetts on the United States’ East Coast.

 They’re simple fishermen who make a living from the sea, but because they can’t afford a sign language interpreter and the societal infrastructure around them is designed for the hearing world, they rely on Ruby to get by. The conflict is that she wants to leave her small-town shackles for Boston, where she wants to pursue a singing degree, but she is bound by familial ties.

Though the main character is a hearing adolescent, it’s the film’s ensemble cast that makes Coda stand out: all three members of Ruby’s family are deaf. Marlee Matlin is the most well-known of the three: 35 years ago today, She is the only deaf performer to have won an Oscar for best actress for her role in Children of a Lesser God, about a young deaf woman’s turbulent relationship with a speech teacher. Matlin herself reflected on the change that Coda represented in a recent Hollywood Reporter feature about the film: “to have a hearing actor dress up as a deaf character as if it were a costume. I believe we’ve passed that point now “She stated. The film’s profile and buzz suggest that this is a watershed moment for deaf representation and casting on screen.

Reductive characterisations

Until recently, deaf people were given scant characterisation in film; their lives, identities, and cultural quirks were rarely given centre stage. They were frequently cast as victims. “Historically, deaf and disabled characters have frequently conformed to negative stereotypes,” says Annie Roberts, advocacy officer for the UK’s Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID). “Too many films ignore the wealth of deaf culture and the sense of belonging to a community, instead opting for a medical approach in which deafness is viewed as something that can be cured. A deaf character is frequently used as a token, to check a box, or as an object of ridicule.” Johnny Belinda, from the Golden Age of Hollywood, is a particularly unsettling example. The plot revolves around the eponymous Belinda, a deaf-mute woman played by hearing actor Jane Wyman, who is raped at a village dance; her inability to scream for help is highlighted. Wyman went on to win an Academy Award for the role. According to Roberts, despite its award-winning credentials, Children of a Lesser God perpetuated negative stereotypes: “[Matlin’s character] is a subordinate with no agency,” Roberts suggests.

Charlotte Little, a film critic and access consultant, was diagnosed with Usher’s Syndrome when she was 14 years old, “which meant that I was losing my peripheral vision,” she says. “It’s a major cause of deaf-blindness: I usually describe myself as hard of hearing and visually impaired. I have tunnel vision, which makes sense, but it’s a very complex condition.”—Pass-Exams-In-First-Attempt/wiki

Growing up, deaf and hard-of-hearing characters were frequently tainted by reductive tropes and stereotypes. “They were always two-dimensional: either the punchline of the joke, only appearing for a few minutes, or portrayed in a pitiful light. You never saw complex, flawed, beautiful, strong deaf characters; you only saw the essentials.”

She has recently suggested, Deaf representation has been tokenistic, with deaf characters written in by Hollywood studios as a cynical marketing ploy to tick diversity and inclusion boxes. She uses Toy Story 4 as an illustration. “I remember learning that there was supposed to be a character with a hearing device in the film [an unnamed boy with a cochlear implant] – but they’re only in it for a second,” she says. “Using a deaf character to pique interest, but failing to honour that representation.”

But what does representation, which may appear hazy on the surface, actually mean? The late critic Roger Ebert famously described movies as “machines that generate empathy”: cinema can be a direct route to understanding a little more about experiences other than our own, particularly those of marginalised groups. But also, as celebrated filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, of Birdman, Babel and The Revenant fame, put it in a 2016 interview, “cinema is a mirror by which we often see ourselves”. In this sense, a great film can be a rich source of self-awareness. Little recalls seeing herself on screen for the first time when she was 20 years old, in the film A Quiet Place. The film begins 89 days after blind, quadrupedal aliens in impenetrable armour are brought to Earth by what the sequel Part II later implies is a chance meteor collision. They ruthlessly kill anything that makes a discernible noise, their instinct being to exterminate; like a man-eating super virus on gangly, clawed legs. The human race has been decimated by the time we meet the Abbott family, which includes father Lee (John Krasinski), mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), and children Regan (Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe). Importantly, Regan, like the actress who plays her, is deaf. Simmonds got her start on Wonderstruck, which also features her character’s deafness as a central motif; however, what distinguishes Regan’s portrayal is the total lack of pity with which she is depicted.

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