A growing trend is emerging in the film industry, in which the lives of Deaf people are only explored through the lens of music – a lens which paints the cultural experience as our antagonist. This isn’t the real problem here; it’s discrimination.
I wouldn’t be surprised Disney+ or BritBox launch a film or series about deafness next. Netflix entered the scene first with the help of Nyle DiMarco in the form of Deaf U and later, Audible; Amazon Prime followed suit with Sound of Metal (starring Riz Ahmed); and more recently, Apple TV+ have jumped on the brownie points bandwagon with CODA, starring Emilia Jones.
With the exception of Deaf U and Audible (the former, by the way, has issues of its own), the current offering seems to be diving into the same subject matter in relation to the Deaf community: music – as if that’s the biggest crisis facing Deaf people today. In Sound of Metal, it’s a newly Deaf drummer desperate to go back to playing the instrument he loves. In CODA, a Child of Deaf Adults wants to pursue a career in music but is held back by her “obligation” to her Deaf family. If one was to use an appropriate idiom to describe one’s frustration with this particular trend, then it’s the fact that I’m tired of hearing actors – and indeed, hearing directors – singing the same tune.
Why aren’t they exploring the important and complex issue of audism – that’s discrimination towards Deaf people, by the way – head on? It presents a far more natural and appropriate challenge to a protagonist than their own disability or that of another person, after all.
The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that music is a universal experience – at least for the most part. The majority of people have interacted with songs in some form, and the idea of a group of people not being able to experience that the same way as others can certainly appeal to someone’s sense of pity. It’s what’s wrong with this rising pattern: Deaf people can and do enjoy music, and we’d rather not have more hearing people approaching us saying “how terrible” it is that we’re unable to interact with it.
But if it’s an issue of prompting engagement and a response from hearing people, then exploring audism can do this too. In contrast, music is a nameless industry. At the very least, a viewer of CODA, for example, could brush their hands, agree that music needs to do more to be more inclusive of Deaf people, and that’s it. There’s no mandate for change because it is, as I’ve said, a cultural experience. Audism, on the other hand, benefits the majority of us. It is, of course, based on privilege, and that’s afforded to hearing people. If you want to get viewers thinking, get them to sit with that.
Many won’t, though, because then the audience can turn their questioning onto the film itself. If we’re talking about societal barriers and attitudes which prevent Deaf people from accessing certain jobs, opportunities or environments, then why, director, have you cast a hearing actor to play the lead role of a Deaf person, or a CODA? No filmmaker wants that PR disaster (which, I should add, is completely avoidable if you have an inclusive casting process), but the alternative – to further reinforce negative stereotypes and misconceptions about the Deaf community – isn’t great for the film’s marketing, either.
These films promise to be representative and game-changing for the community (or communities) they look to explore, but if filmmakers truly want to be impactful, then they could start by seriously looking into the challenges marginalised communities face.
Photo: TIFF (Sound of Metal) and Apple TV+ (CODA).