“The Help,” a critically acclaimed movie based on a book of the same name, furthered the careers of a number of Black performers, including Octavia Spencer, who won an Oscar for best supporting actress.
Also an author and producer, Spencer is a bundle of talent, the recipient of a Golden Globe Award and three Screen Actors Guild awards in addition to her Academy Award.
She is calling on the entertainment industry to increase the casting of people with disabilities, including on-screen roles that portray characters with disabilities. In a new public service spot, Spencer recounts Hollywood’s past practice of false representation and exclusion of some segments of society.
That deceit in the name of entertainment extends from the black-face mockery of minstrel shows and Vaudeville to a string of non-Asian men portraying detective Charlie Chan and a young Leonardo DiCaprio playing a youth with autism in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” Roles for American Indians in many popular movies were filled by whites, a practice known as whitewashing. Our own William H. Macy has earned kudos for playing a door-to-door salesman with cerebral palsy, even though he is not afflicted with that permanent movement disorder.
Spencer has lent her support to an effort by the Ruderman Family Foundation, which advocates for the full inclusion of people with disabilities in society around the globe.
We hope the effort gains traction. Parents tell their children to dream big and set their sights high. Shouldn’t a talented person with a disability have an opportunity to entertain audiences on a large scale?
A separate foundation-initiated pledge to commit to auditioning more actors with disabilities was signed by CBS, while the BBC pledged to implement more authentic and distinctive representation of people with disabilities on screen.
“Life Goes On” was the first television series to have a major character with Down syndrome, with the role of Corky played by Chris Burke.
One of the best examples of a disabled individual playing a person with a disability on the silver screen is from the middle of the last century.
Harold Russell lost both of his hands while teaching demolition work in the U.S. Army in 1944. After his recovery, he was featured in “Diary of a Sergeant,” an Army film about rehabilitating war veterans. “The Best Years of Our Lives” director William Wyler saw the film on Russell and cast him in the role of Homer Parrish, a U.S. Navy sailor who lost both hands during the war.
For his role as Parrish, Russell won the Academy Award for best supporting actor in 1947. Earlier in the ceremony, he was presented an honorary Oscar for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.” The special award had been created because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Board of Governors wanted to honor Russell, a non-professional actor, but thought he didn’t stand much of a chance in actual competition. It was the only time that the academy had awarded two Oscars for the same performance.
The timing for the new push is perfect, since Sunday was the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act into law by President George H.W. Bush.
As we continue to try to form a more perfect union, as the framers of the U.S. Constitution envisioned, we must do everything in our power to make certain that all people are granted opportunities and paths cleared for them to contribute to society.
Anything less is falling short of offering everyone a chance to fulfill their American dream.