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August 21, 2017 | by  | in Film |
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Robotic Legs, “Inspiration”, and Disability in Film

In only a few minutes of screen time, Captain America: Civil War tells a more accurate and, in my view, more edifying story of disability than most Hollywood films do in upwards of two hours.

Okay, bear with me.

In case you haven’t seen Civil War (or the memory of it has been crushed by the relentless march of the Marvel-industrial complex), here is some context: James Rhodes (or War Machine, played by Don Cheadle) is permanently injured in a scuffle with Christ-like android the Vision (Paul Bettany). In lieu of a spare Aaron Taylor-Johnson, the Russo brothers elected to maim poor Rhodey. Consider the stakes raised.

How do the filmmakers redeem this ultimately lazy twist? In the final minutes of the film, after superhero relationships have been torn asunder and the requisite amount of punching has been indulged in, the audience is reintroduced to Rhodey. He, with the aid of Stark-designed robo-splints, is relearning to walk. He takes a few steps and falls over. Tony tries to help him up before joining him on the floor. Rhodey’s response? “Yeah, this sucks. This is a bad beat.’’ He takes Tony’s hand and gets up again.

Simple and (despite the nifty robotic legs) real.

I’m disabled. I have a (comparatively) mild form of cerebral palsy. If you have any classes at Kelburn, chances are you’ve seen me, walking sticks in hand, shuffling around. I’m also a film student, and seeing disability portrayed on film has been a source of both interest and frustration for me for many years. This is because, in very broad terms, mainstream Hollywood films recognise to some extent the challenge that disability represents, but do not usually portray it accurately. Movies about disability tend to regard physical ailments and handicaps in very simple terms. Disabilities are challenges to overcome, things that can be defeated with the aid of the right orchestral score. This formula reduces disabled people to bland saints at best, and smiling objects of inspiration at worst. Being disabled is somehow intrinsically inspiring because it is a set of circumstances to overcome, as opposed to something that must be lived with.

I’m not coming to argue that all movies about disability are terrible (see My Left Foot, The Theory of Everything, et al) but the overwhelming number of films conform to the expectations I’ve mentioned. A month after Civil War was released, Me Before You graced New Zealand screens. This well-intentioned weepy represents the apotheosis of the formula I’ve described. Both the film and the book are replete with lines like “Live boldly. Push yourself. Don’t settle.” and “You only get one life. It’s actually your duty to live it as fully as possible.” However, once Will (a paraplegic played by Sam Caflin) has outlived his usefulness as an object of inspiration, he opts to end his life. It appears that the film’s Facebook-ready platitudes don’t apply to him. Instead, disability is presented primarily for the benefit of nondisabled onlookers. How inspiring we are, and just by being!

In my experience (which is, of course, personal and subjective), no dramatic music has accompanied my small accomplishments. In the words of lawyer and disability activist Stella Young, “no amount of smiling ever turned a flight of stairs into a ramp.” The scene showing Rhodey’s adjustment acknowledges part of the truth in Young’s statement: it’s a tough beat, but it is doable. To have this acknowledged onscreen (and in a superhero movie, no less) gives me hope for the portrayal of disability in mainstream film. Maybe we can move beyond tales of “inspiration” and “overcoming”, and tell stories about life?

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