A few weeks ago, a friend and I decided to visit the cinema on a cold and wet Sunday afternoon. We fancied a feel good film that didn’t demand too much thinking and went for The Greatest Showman. Hugh Jackman, good songs and special effects… what more could we ask for? Unfortunately, within about 20 minutes of the show beginning, we realised the answer to that was a whole lot more.
The film is about Phineas Taylor Barnum, an entrepreneur who was one of the first pioneers of the travelling circus. A controversial and complex figure, there is no doubt that he has his place in history. There is also no doubt that place in history has much to do with his decision to display so-called ‘freaks’ on stage. These included a bearded lady, an obese gentleman and a man of small stature, who he called General Tom Thumb. Perhaps most controversially, he is known for displaying a blind and almost completely paralysed slave woman called Joice Heth, who he claimed was George Washington’s former nurse and said to be 161 years old (Ms Heth did not appear in the film).
Thankfully times have changed and America has (to a certain extent) moved on from this. One would think that Barnum and his like could be left firmly in the past. Not so. Hollywood has decided to create a musical dedicated to this man and sidestep a huge amount of inconvenient truths to present him as a supposed saviour of those very same people he in fact exploited for his own personal gain. To say this did not rest well with us would be an understatement.
Our issues with the film did not end there. Instead of telling what we thought would have been a far more interesting story and exploring the lives of these supposed ‘freaks’, they ended up having very little to do apart from singing crowd-pleasing songs including ‘This is Me’. Songs which asked the viewer to accept these people for who they were. But who were they? Unfortunately the film failed to answer this. Instead, all they seemed to do was prop up the leading men and women, all of whom were able-bodied, fit, mostly white individuals. None of them had their own story lines or, in many cases, any lines at all, and thus they remained entirely two dimensional throughout.
The film industry has undertaken a lot of self-reflection in recent months and this is very welcome. With any luck the #metoo movement will have a lasting impact on the way women are treated in the industry and in the words of Oprah, ‘a new day is on the horizon’. Perhaps in this new day the film industry could start to consider the way people with disabilities are treated too. The impact films have on a social level cannot be underestimated. The fact that there have been campaigns, like the Black Panther Challenge, which encourages young black children to see Black Panther, a film with almost all black characters, just serves to emphasise this point.
It seems to me the representation of disability on film is the next hurdle and, perhaps more importantly, the idea that disabled people can actually play their own parts. Another film, in the spotlight at the moment after its Oscar triumph is The Shape of Water, which details the story of a mute woman, played by Sally Hawkins, who has to communicate via sign language. Ms Hawkins presumably had to learn sign language to play the part, however, one has to question why the role was given to a non-signing actor when it quite clearly could have picked a disabled actor who would not have needed to learn sign language. Of course the film industry has a history of able-bodied characters playing disabled parts and those actors receiving Oscars to boot. Unsurprisingly Ms Hawkins was nominated.
Perhaps the film industry could learn from our very own UK TV series Silent Witness in which Liz Carr, one of its main recurring actors, is disabled. Recently this show had a two-part storyline exploring abuse in a care home of disabled residents. These episodes were very memorable and were quite rightly praised for the sensitive way they portrayed the difficult storyline. In stark contrast to the Greatest Showman, Silent Witness portrayed Ms Carr’s character as someone with her own hopes, fears and dreams and did not shy away from some of the difficult truths people with disabilities have to face on a day-to-day basis. Yet, at the same time, the character was bigger than her disability.
There is no doubt that changing the way disabled people are portrayed on screen can have a lasting and positive impact on how society views disability generally. Not only will this help tackle discrimination but it will also, I have no doubt, generate more varied storylines; and who doesn’t want that?