14. Diversity in cinema? by Jon Spira

I hate the Oscars.

This isn’t a new thing.

By the time I was deeply obsessed with cinema as a teenager it was obvious that the awards were always off the mark – the biggies went only to the films which either had the biggest stars overcoming (or falling heroically to) the biggest medical problems or the British films with the biggest dresses. This all came to a head at film school in 1998 when, during an Oscars party, my friend Dan went home early because Titanic won Best Cinematography. As a cinematographer, it sickened him. This graceful departure marked the end of my interest in film awards.

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Every year, the word ‘snubbed’ is rolled out exclusively for use in connection with the awards. Some old fart director or mediocre actor who has made a high volume of mediocre films is ‘snubbed’ from their moment of glory by the Academy unexpectedly awarding the Oscar to some upstart who we’ll never hear of again outside of TV movies. This year, was different, though. This year, Oscar ‘snubbed’ every non-white performer or filmmaker in the world. It was shocking that no people of colour were even nominated for awards and the debate surrounding this quickly developed from just allegations of racism within the Academy to a discourse on the fact that Hollywood itself is still demonstrably racist.

The discussion around this subject raged from bigoted tweets to long, illuminating blogs and articles. It can’t be denied that there is still a massive bias in cinema towards white, male, heteronormative stories. The reality of diversity is not being represented. Although, I do think that this situation is improving. Last year’s biggest blockbuster – the new Star Wars film – featured a female and a black male leading the cast, with support from a Latino actor and hints at a homosexual relationship developing. Preceding that, Mad Max: Fury Road surprised everybody by turning out to be a hugely feminist story in which Max wasn’t even the hero, playing second fiddle to Charlize Theron. This summer’s Ghostbusters will see an all-female team of lead actors taking on a special effects-driven genre blockbuster. Maybe things are improving.

When Dave asked me to write this blog as part of his awareness-raising of World Down’s Syndrome Day, I realised – to my shame – that I knew very little about Down’s Syndrome. As you might have guessed, I really only know about cinema. And, actually, the little I know about Down’s has come entirely from Dave’s downwithdad blog – which proves that his work is, indeed, raising awareness. I’ve spent the last month or so with this blog in the back of my mind, wondering how I could possibly tackle a subject as meaningful as Down’s Syndrome awareness when Cinema is the only subject that I can write confidently about.

But the Oscars threw everything into focus. In this massive debate about the lack of diversity in cinema, I didn’t read a single piece which focused on the lack of representation of Down’s characters in cinema.

Wikipedia lists just 15 films from cinema’s entire 120-odd years. Although, not the most reliable source, that still speaks volumes. Around one in a thousand babies born each year have Down’s Syndrome. Nowhere near one in a thousand films released feature a Down’s character in even a small role. Visibility of Down’s in cinema has been extremely low. Can you name a film which prominently features people with Down’s?

The only film I could think of – and it’s listed in Wikipedia’s glorious 15 – is The Ringer. The Ringer is a knockabout comedy starring Jackass’s Johnny Knoxville as a man who feigns learning disabilities so he can enter, and throw, the Special Olympics. The film is trash. Really, it’s awful. It’s one of the lesser offerings from The Farrelly Brothers who exploded onto the scene with Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary but quickly lost their deft mastery of the crass and just wound up churning out genuinely, rather than slickly, dumb films. That said, The Ringer, for all it’s many flaws, does something incredibly rare. It refuses to relegate the disabled and mentally challenged characters to the sidelines as objects of either ridicule or sympathy. It casts actors who have the actual conditions they portray in the film and it gives each of them defined personalities, stories, senses of humour and – critically – integrity. Who’d have thought it? And what a damning indictment of global cinema that a shitty Johnny Knoxville straight-to-video comedy would be one of the very few films in film history to do so.

There are Down’s actors out there. Last year, Coronation Street cast Liam Bairstow, who got a great reaction from the public. There are even award winners. Pascal Duquenne won Best Actor at Cannes for his leading role in The Eighth Day (although, he had to share it with co-lead Daniel Auteuil) and Paula Sage won a BAFTA for Best First Time Performance in Afterlife. Paula only has one other acting credit on IMDB and nothing following her win. Pascal has just 6 over a 24 year career. I would argue that the leading, award-winning actors in any other minority group have benefitted from greater employment.

There are films out there – last year’s Where Hope Grows prominently featured actor David DeSanctis. Alan Cumming starred in Any Day Now in 2012, which has a story concerning his guardianship of a Down’s teenager. In the hugely successful 2009 film Precious, the main character has a child with Down’s, although it wouldn’t be fair to say this is given much screen time. Films which genuinely embrace the subject of Down’s seem few and very far between and generally fail to secure decent distribution.

So, when people complain about the lack of diversity in cinema, it’s worth remembering that this particular 0.1% of the population have been almost completely unrepresented. Cinema is about storytelling and exploring social, cultural and human issues. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see some stories about Down’s?

Jon is a documentary maker and total film buff.  His latest film, Elstree 1976, tells the story of the people behind the masks in the Star Wars trilogy.

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