CODA Makes History With Deaf Representation in Film

January 21, 2022 BY REBECCA KLEIN


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Awards season can often be a painful reminder of all the ways the entertainment industry excludes and misrepresents d/Deaf, neurodiverse, and disabled actors and characters. If characters with disabilities are included in a film at all, they’re routinely played by non-disabled actors, and stories too often misrepresent disabled experiences and rely on cliched tropes of disability.

With the coming-of-age film CODA, directed by Sian Heder, we’re thrilled to see authentic Deaf representation and inclusion in this year’s award wins and nominations.

CODA, which stands for “child of deaf adults,” tells the story of Ruby Rossi, the only hearing member of a Deaf family in Massachusetts. The film has garnered multiple wins and nominations and was a hit at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for drama and best director and best ensemble. CODA has received acclaim from critics and d/Deaf viewers for its portrayal of Deaf characters by Deaf actors.

Recently, the film was nominated for Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture and supporting male actor for Troy Kotsur, who portrays Ruby’s father. Kotsur is one of three Deaf actors in CODA, and he is the first Deaf actor to score an individual SAG nomination. He and the rest of the film’s Deaf ensemble are the first Deaf performers to receive nominations in the SAG Awards’ 28-year history.

In a statement provided to CNN, Kotsur said, “Hopefully the recognition that this beautiful film is receiving can serve as a reminder of just how funny, complex, and powerful Deaf voices can be, and that stories with actors who happen to be Deaf can be mainstream stories.”

A step towards Deaf representation in film, but not without room for growth

While CODA is an incredible step in the right direction for authentic casting and Deaf representation in film, the movie still had to adjust course to solve issues of representation.

Watching CODA today, it’s hard to imagine the film without Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant, who portray the Deaf members of the Rossi family and who are also culturally Deaf in real life. However, CODA is based on the 2014 French film La Famille Belier, in which most d/Deaf characters were played by hearing actors.

When Matlin was cast in the film, she pushed against the studio’s desire to cast famous hearing actors for her Deaf family members. Thanks to Matlin’s insistence, Kotsur and Durant were cast, ensuring that much of the interactions between the Deaf characters were accurate, natural, and authentic.

However, no movie is perfect, and critics point to room for growth. While deaf activist and advocate Jenna Fischtrom Beacom praised the film for its casting and unscripted moments with ASL, she noted there were many stereotypes and parts that didn’t feel as realistic, such as Ruby’s sign language and some of the dialogue.

“It was very clear that the dialogue was written by a hearing person,” Fischtrom Beacom said. “ASL and English are very different languages, with not only distinct syntax, grammar, etc., but also their own idioms,” she said. “There is overlap, and anything can be interpreted from one language to another but many phrases just don’t ‘work’ well when they’re supposed to be coming from culturally deaf-ASL users.”

Throughout the movie, Ruby is forced to interpret for her family at work, doctor’s appointments, and other formal settings that would typically call for a professional interpreter. She is torn between pursuing her love of music and staying with her family to continue interpreting while they run their fishing business.

While Ruby’s experiences provide poignant representation for many CODAs who grew up without professional interpreters for their parents, the movie’s writing points toward a need for Deaf inclusion across all creative aspects of a movie’s production. From writers to producers to actors, films need representation across teams to tell accurate and authentic stories featuring Deaf characters.

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Translation is also highlighted this awards season

Also of significance this awards season is the television show Squid Game and its multiple nominations and wins. Squid Game became the first non-English series and first Korean series to earn a SAG Awards nomination for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a drama. 

The breakout Netflix hit is poised to make history, a testament to Parasite director Bong Joon-ho’s 2020 Oscar acceptance speech. “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles,” Bong said, “you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

A look towards a more inclusive future for film

With the success of CODA and other recent films with d/Deaf actors and characters, it becomes easier to imagine a future of more inclusive, authentic filmmaking. However, in an interview with Variety, Matlin cautioned being too optimistic without taking action.

“You can’t be too optimistic,” Matlin said. “You have a right to be optimistic. People give speeches about how great it is to see authentic casting, but I’ve yet to see it happen in a huge way, for all under-represented groups. We cannot sit back any longer. This has ignited a fire you can’t put out.”

Inclusive casting is an important piece of Deaf representation in film. But for representation to happen how Matlin describes—”in a huge way”—it needs to permeate across teams, from writers to directors and everyone in between.

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