Hollywood’s Disability


When the doctor first told my wife and I that our son was going to be born with a disability, I was uncommonly brave. I knew that God was in control, that He was sufficient for our need and that we would not be doing this alone. What I did not know was what “this” was. I did have some concept of disability; my disabled aunt lived with us as I was growing up. But I did not know the particular struggles my son would face or how the world would receive them. Nor was I encouraged by my growing perception, which was largely informed by the film and television productions I reviewed. The recent release of the film Champions has certainly lifted Hollywood’s game. But the world itself—both Christian and secular—has some way to go before it comes to see those with special needs the same way God does.

Like society in general, film’s approach to disability has advanced in fits and starts. Probably the seminal feature would have to be David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, based on the life of Joseph Merrick, a man known for suffering severe physical deformities. As far as films go, the 1980 production is a moving piece, though the story is more focused on the people who encounter Merrick than Merrick himself. Its view of the disabled is challenging for audiences but also questionable. Merrick is valued ultimately because he is quite intelligent despite his features. The film is also best remembered for his line, “I am not an animal!”, which has since become a popular idiom. However, “not an animal” is hardly a high bar for the disabled to rise above.

Hollywood moved on. There were several notable attempts in the ’90s and early 2000s to make room in the canon for positive portrayals, this time of the intellectually disabled. In What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Leonardo DiCaprio plays the challenged Arnie Grape, who is an innocent burden to his struggling brother. In Forrest Gump, disability took centre stage with Tom Hanks portraying a naive man who achieves high acclaim through his simplicity of character. I Am Sam crowned that decade with Sean Penn’s Sam Dawson, an intellectually disabled father who must fight for his right to parent his child. All of these performances achieved critical acclaim, garnering many award nominations and one Oscar. Paradoxically, though, it was A-list actors who were recruited to portray the disabled, indicating increasing sympathy for a range of disabilities, yet a continuing discomfort for the disabled themselves.

Above: ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ (1993) with Leonardo DiCaprio

One step forward
Champions is part of a relatively recent wave of cinema that is prepared to allow those with disabilities to speak for themselves. A remake of a Spanish film by the same name, the 2023 sports comedy stars Woody Harrelson as Marcus Marakovich, a bristly basketball coach who is convicted of drink-driving and given the task of training a basketball team with learning disabilities.

On a very basic level, Champions is a “triumph of the human spirit” film—Marakovich helps his team overcome significant barriers and coaches his disadvantaged team to a grand final. Thematically, though, the film is about not only becoming comfortable with the presence of disabled people but being capable of celebrating their unique identities. It also represents a high watermark for Hollywood casting. The producers made the conscious decision to use disabled men and women to play the disabled roles. It seems there is no longer a need to have their presence mediated by an “abled” person.

Yet Champions highlights our continuingly complicated relationship with disability. Despite having the attractions of comedy and an A-list star, it failed to fill cinemas. Its budget of $US91 million returned $US18 million in ticket sales. Even the preview screening I was part of was noticeably less well-attended, the seats mainly being filled by disabled people who had come to see themselves represented on screen. As believers, we might point our fingers at a Western society enamoured with beauty, but it would only point back at Christianity’s own supposed shortcomings. I well remember being asked why God was not prepared to accept “defective” sacrifices or be served by “disabled” Levites. And then there are the criticisms levelled at Christian luminaries.


Disability in recent memory
Martin Luther is purported to have advised a man to throw his disabled son into a river; John Calvin is accused of seeing disability as a sign of evil. All of these accusations falter on closer examination. God’s laws regarding purity are given as a means of pointing to the perfect sacrifice and servant who would come to save His people from judgement. The accusation levelled at Luther is from a discredited source, and his actual writings show far more compassion: “Even if a child is unattractive at birth, we nevertheless love it.”

John Calvin did not see disability as a sign of evil, but more accurately part of a fallen world. Far from being unloving, he points out that Jonathan’s crippled son Mephibosheth had a right to be treated with dignity and King David was not ashamed to seat him at his table.

Shame, though, is what society propagates when it excludes the developmentally disabled from our shared stories. It shrivels the human soul to the point that it values only those things that conform to the highest social norms or make significant contributions to the world. In short, the supermodels and successful. It was this sort of secular mindset that led to the emergence of “social Darwinism” in the 19th century:

“Supporters of social Darwinism opposed state aid to the . . . handicapped. They reasoned that the preservation of the ‘unfit’ would impede the process of natural selection and tamper [with] the selection of the ‘best’ or ‘fittest’ elements necessary for progeny.”1


Everyone bears the image
Yet the Christian church has a heritage of replacing such public rejection with personal value. The doctrine of Imago Dei—“in the image of God”—maintains that all human beings have been created in the image of the Creator and so are of equal dignity and value. Inspired by this truth, members of the early church would rescue and raise unwanted babies who had been cast onto Roman rubbish heaps. Likewise, they would set up hospitals across the Empire to care for those incapable of caring for themselves. Christian reformers used the same doctrine over the centuries to operate anti-slavery campaigns, champion the rights of the poor, protect the elderly and unborn and, yes, draw our eyes to the plight of the disabled.

Including the disabled at all levels of our society will always be challenging and complex. Defeating shame has to begin with the softening of our own hearts before we can hope to reform society. Yet Christians have a proud heritage that extends from the heart of God. It is not enough though, Professor John Swinton writes, to simply include the disabled. We must strive to make them feel that they belong:

“The problem we have with society is a real emphasis—and a quite right emphasis—on inclusion. I think at one level that’s fine. However, inclusion is simply not enough. To include people in society is just to have them there . . . To belong, you have to be missed. There’s something really, really important about that. People need to long for you, to want you to be there. When you’re not there, they should go looking for you.”2

And if we need further inspiration, we need only look to the life of Jesus. The attitude towards the disabled in Jesus’ day was so negative that His disciples felt free to ask whether a man was born blind because of his own sin or the sin of his parents. Jesus’ reply is instructive because at the very least it reminds us that every disability we encounter is an opportunity to display the glory of heaven:

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”3

Mark Hadley is a media and cultural critic who lives with his family in Sydney. Please note that discussion of a media product in Signs of the Times does not imply an endorsement or recommendation.

1. C Wa Munyi, “Past and Present Perceptions Towards Disability: A Historical Perspective”, Disability Studies Quarterly

2. R Bayes, “A Biblical View of Disability”, Be Thinking

3. John 9:3–5, NIV

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