Yes, It *Is* About Disability: Reflections on Disability and Media Criticism After Sundance 2020

By Laura Dorwart: For More Info, Go Here…

The 2020 Sundance Film Festival, which I was lucky enough to attend as part of the 2020 Press Inclusion Initiative, offered plenty of watershed moments around disability representation in film. The most obvious was the opening night documentary Crip Camp, co-directed by James (Jim) LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham.

A surprising number of the other films on offer in 2020 also dealt with disability and mental illness, whether explicitly or not. In Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear, for example, Aubrey Plaza’s protagonist slices headlong into a couple’s illusory pastoral scene of domesticity. But she also runs from, and through, the minefield of her own trauma history, navigating alcohol use disorder against a backdrop of abusers and enablers.

Similarly, the film Herself (directed by Phyllida Lloyd) features Daniel Ryan, an actor with Down syndrome, in a notable supporting role. And the film’s protagonist, a single mother (played by co-writer Clare Dunne) dealing with the aftermath of domestic violence in contemporary Dublin, addresses both her facial difference (see Carly Findlay’s work on facial difference in film) and the murky emotional landscape of mutual caregiving in ways that are integral to character and thematic development.

But what I found most fascinating, and most indicative of how far we have yet to go in terms of the cultural conversation around disability representation in film and elsewhere, was the reporting on Crip Camp and other films at this year’s festival. In narrative framing, headline phrasing, tone, and content, criticism of films that feature disabled performers or address disability often perpetuates stereotypes in predictable, often unconscious patterns.

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