CinemAbility explores the representation of disabled people on screen throughout the history of cinema and television.
Relying on footage from many films from the early 20th century to today and on many interviews, Jenni Gold’s (“Dumpster Diving (Short)”, “Panic (Short)”) documentary opens a discussion on the poor quality and overall lack of on-screen representation of physical disabilities of many sorts (blindness, genetic disorders, disabilities due to injuries, etc), offering the uninitiated viewer a much-needed overview of the topic and a wake-up call to change things.
Starting with the first apparition of a disabled person on-screen, the documentary first analyzes the different tropes associated with disabilities.
Thanks to the many examples coming from different eras of cinema and television, we start to understand how much the tropes of the fake disabled beggar or sweet asexual innocent, among many, still permeate today’s films.
The interviewees offer insightful commentaries, especially the ones who have disabilities themselves like Marlee Matlin (“Children of a Lesser God”), Danny Woodburn (“Mirror Mirror”) or James Troesh (“The Hollywood Quad”).
Hearing them talk about their own experiences, whether as actors looking for jobs, getting pigeonholed into certain roles or growing up with very little representation to look up to, is far more interesting than the rest of the interviews focusing on commentaries from abled-bodied actors who had to portray disabled characters on screen, like Jamie Foxx (who played Ray Charles in biopic “Ray”), Ben Affleck (“Daredevil”) or Gary Sinise (who played the wounded Lieutenant Dan Taylor in “Forrest Gump”).
Their observations as outsiders add to the discussion but take the spotlight away from actors who have first-hand experiences and knowledge and whose voices are in general less heard.
Similarly, small segments of the documentary compare the way disabled characters are handled on screen to the way people of various ethnicities have been portrayed, but even though the intersection of both issues is relevant with, for example, the case of black and paraplegic actor Daryl Mitchell (“Inside Man”), this short digression focusing solely on race representation takes time away from the real issue at hand, an issue that is far less discussed than the rest and would have deserved a complete focus.
The best way to describe CinemAbility is as an overview of its subject, touching upon everything without delving in-depth into any of it.
The inclusion of television (whether fiction or unscripted) and animated films into the documentary is very welcome, just like the little segment on disabled directors or TV presenters, but these parts of the documentary are too brief and only leave you wanting much more.
Same goes with a short discussion about whether able-bodied actors should play disabled characters or not: various sides of the debates are present, but the topic is waved off in a few minutes even though it is a very relevant and complex discussion.
Despite this, CinemAbility is a great 101 course and eye-opener on its topic. This will definitely make any viewer who hasn’t already thought much about it more aware of the problem and maybe even want to look into specific issues more in-depth – and after all, this is probably exactly what Jenni Gold aimed to achieve and why this is an essential watch to the uninitiated no matter its shortcomings.