Rise of Representation

CODA Oscar Win Signals Rise of Deaf Representation in Hollywood

In recent years, inclusivity and diversity have been at the forefront of social activism and awareness campaigns spanning the globe. Women, LGBTQ, and the Black communities have maintained focal status at the center of these movements while other minority groups remain in the shadows. One community showing itself as a rising force with growing notoriety in media and in the entertainment industry is the Deaf community.

The poster art for the Netflix series DEAF U features four actors signing. An image of the hand sign for each letter of the title D E A F U is at the top of the poster.
Image Source: Netflix

The culture’s emergence has been steadily accelerating proving its sustaining power as a media mainstay. On Today, Deaf actor Nyle DiMarco shares his view that while Deaf representation was slow to the start, it has hit a stride and it’s time to see more deaf players behind the camera as well as in front. From the acclaimed indie film, The Sound of Metal and the big-budget tentpole, Eternals to the popular TV series Hawkeye and this year’s Oscar winner, CODA (with its extended theatrical run), Deaf representation continues its march on Hollywood.

Hollywood Doors and Hearts Open to Deaf Community

For decades, Deaf culture has been underrepresented or misrepresented in film and media. Whether it be ensuring accurate depictions of Deaf characters on-screen or adequate access for Deaf and hard-of-hearing production crew off-screen, the call to right yet another historic wrong is loud and clear. The veracity of Deaf characters in the style they are written and the manner they are portrayed has been a point of contention among the Deaf.

Marlee Matlin stands in front of a CODA step and repeat banner in a floral dress signaling “I love you” with both hands.
Image Source: Just Jared

Renowned deaf actress, Marlee Matlin remains a celebrated figure and guiding advocate of the deaf acting community. In an interview with USA Today, she states, “I’ve seen so many times in this industry where hearing actors take on the role of Deaf characters. We’ve had enough of that. It’s time for myself and other Deaf actors to be able to speak up and say, enough is enough. We are here. Our talents are valid.”

Hiring Deaf talent to play Deaf characters seems to be the obvious approach to remedying the misappropriation of the culture. With that simple notion in mind, the tide has surely turned.

In the instance of CODA, a story about a young woman who is the only hearing member of a Deaf family, the writer-director Siân Heder’s decision to cast Deaf actors in the deaf roles has been cited as “a watershed moment in representation”. Duly noted. Movie financing has long been predicated on securing well-known actors in lead roles. Heder’s choice to go against the grain for the sake of prioritizing authenticity and inclusion over that outmoded practice has sparked luminary praise and well-deserved buzz among audiences and her fellow filmmakers.

 

 

CODA Sweeps Award Season

Hollywood’s annual publicity campaign known as the Oscars prides itself on historical firsts and to its credit does a successful job at spotlighting systemic flaws that are in process of improvement. Deaf actors Eugenio Derbez, Marlee Matlin, Daniel Durant, Troy Kotsur and Emilia Jones have received accolades for their outstanding performance in CODA throughout this year’s award season. The film’s Best Picture Oscar win solidifies and propels the momentum of Deaf representation in the industry. Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Troy Kotsur shares with Ava, “I feel like this is a cultural transformation and feel really good that producers are inspired and motivated to look for something new and think outside the box. And finally, get rid of the box, collapse the box, open it up. Let’s get diverse stories in. We have such a rich storytelling tradition in the Deaf community.”

The family of four (Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant) featured in CODA sit on the bed of a truck, smiling and happy. “Winner of 3 Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Troy Kotsur) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Sian Heder)” is captioned above the feature film title CODA
Image Source: Apple

Deaf Narratives on Streaming Platforms

The output of shows with Deaf narratives has increased in number and demand among viewers. Streaming platforms are adding content options that feature Deaf characters. A playlist to consider (and where to watch) might include:

Image Source: Variety

Lauren Ridloff (The Walking Dead and Eternals), Nyle DiMarco (Audible and Deaf U) and Millicent Simmonds (A Quiet Place and Helen & Teacher) are a few names with notable acclaim in the rising crop of Deaf actors.

The book cover for “Helen and Teacher” by Joseph P Lash has an image of Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan. The story of this relationship will be made in to a movie starring Millcent Simmonds.
Image Source: Da Capo Press

Technological Impacts on Deaf Access

The HLAA (Hearing Loss Association of America) reports that approximately 48 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss. Those impacted wait an average of 7 years before seeking help. Without proper awareness, support, and adaptive toolsets, hearing impairment proves to be a detriment to the human experience, adversely impacting quality of life from mental health and social interaction to education and employment. Acknowledging this vast population and raising awareness of its challenges normalizes the prevalence of hearing loss and encourages technological and social advancements in the space.

Tools such as caption technology are key assets that ease communication barriers in environments such as on production sets among cast and crew when Deaf and hard-of-hearing players are involved. For example, Anne Tomasetti, director of Artistic Sign Language (ASL) used the Ava app on the set of CODA. The technology assisted with group conversations and was particularly helpful during post-production with the team of producers and editors.

 

The affirmation that Deaf representation in media is not a momentary trend, but a movement with lasting strength should be reinforced often and continuously examined. A consistent stream of Deaf-themed projects in development, such as Simmonds’s TV adaptation of the book True Biz (recently added to Reese Witherspoon’s monthly reads) reaffirms this progress is not just a flash in the pan. The responsibility to increase the presence of the Deaf in this particularly influential industry rests in the broader understanding of why diversity is so important.

“I feel like this is a cultural transformation… Let’s get diverse stories in. We have such a rich storytelling tradition in the Deaf community.” –Troy Kotsur

Raising awareness, breaking stereotypes, reducing stigmas, increasing access and opportunities for minorities are courses of action that elevate humanity to a higher level. It educates adolescents, as well as adults, and promotes a better functioning society. Hollywood and the media have a reputation of manufacturing false idols and generating publicity hype for mere self-promotional purposes. However, the more that educational institutions, and employers of various sectors adopt equal access and enhanced methods of communication and representation for the Deaf, the more this significant moment in Hollywood exhibits real-world impact. Deaf culture is strong and it’s here to stay.

Affirming Inclusion and Access

Deaf representation in media continues to show its prevalence and importance in Hollywood and among audiences. CODA’s ‘Best Picture’ Oscar win reaffirms that access for the Deaf community and the interest for Deaf narratives is growing.

Thibault Duchemin, Founder and CEO of Ava’s voice caption technology is a CODA (Child Of Deaf Adult) with a first-hand understanding of how technology advances communication among Deaf and hearing people in everyday life. Deaf actor Troy Kotsur spoke with Ava about his experience as a Deaf person in Hollywood and his path to winning the ‘Best Supporting Actor’ Oscar for his role in CODA. Stay tuned for the full interview coming soon.

Weezie Melançon
Post by Weezie Melançon
May 20, 2022

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