HEY! YOU! MEDIA! An Inconvenient Truth About Why Casting is a Problem in “The Upside”

The inconvenient truth about The Upside is that its misguided casting is based in a biased business decision, not creative expression.

As in Me Before YouBreathe,  and He Won’t Get Far on FootThe Upside failed to cast a wheelchair-using actor and instead chose Bryan Cranston, who does not have a visible disability.  Admittedly, I hadn’t expected Cranston to have actually been “the one who knocks” in his own life when he played the role of a drug dealer. But I am critical of him deciding to take the role of a recently disabled man — and, more importantly, I’m critical of how systems protected him from having to face serious competition from wheelchair-using actors. He recently defended his choice, saying it was a “business decision.”

Many disabled people disagree. Cranston, and many others, scoff at the criticism, saying that movies are a commercial venture and that, moreover, disability is just another fictional experience to portray. Actors act, after all…unless the actor has a visible disability, in which case their talent could never sway an audience — or a producer.

Muddling these arguments together is a mistake. The first is about business practices and the second is about creative expression. For actors, creative expression requires industry access — and that’s why casting norms need to change before debates about representation and creative expression can be anything but theoretical.


If the industry is going to limit nearly all physically disabled actors to roles defined by physical disability, non disabled actors shouldn’t be surprised when there’s anger at seeing those roles lost to actors who are not physically disabled. If only 2% of roles are disabled characters, to begin with, and 95% are played by actors without disabilities, that’s a systemic employment barrier.


Creative expression has different bases. Some of us experience disability as an event that affects our lives and some experience it as a component of our identity. Many of us experience both.

In creating disability narratives, this difference positions disability either as an event that drives the plot forward or as a component of identity that contributes to a character.  Both are valid and both can lead to high- or low-quality work.

That difference is not going to be resolved. It’s not even a problem to be solved. In terms of acting, I would say it’s even a mistake right now to be drawn into too much arguing about the specifics of who’s “allowed” to play what roles.


The problem is that actors with visible disabilities are shut out of casting and that prevents careers — and clout.


One reason is that it too easily reduces us to diagnoses. Another it that it risks inhibiting imagination and empathy. I have muscular dystrophy and use a wheelchair now. I spent my childhood misdiagnosed with cerebral palsy. I’ve had agitated depression. And I swear to god I don’t know if I’m sweating right now from frustration or menopause. I have also had colds, pneumonia, and tummy-aches. What types of disabilities are “appropriate” for me to play? Should only people like me, who grew up with a disability, play roles of characters who had disabilities in childhood? And where does this leave the vast numbers of actors with invisible disabilities who have succeeded in passing as non disabled? 

It’s an interesting discussion — what constitutes “enough” experience — but it’s currently entangled with the real issue to be confronted: biased business practices.

Trying to avoid thThe argument that a non disabled actor — in this case, Bryan Cranston — is simply the superior artist doesn’t hold up. What are all of these roles that visibly disabled actors have performed in such an inferior fashion? Spoiler alert: They don’t exist so you have no actual comparison. Just an assumption that visibly disabled actors wouldn’t be as good or better.

And, in terms of artistry, here’s a question: To what degree does the non disabled actor depend upon a prop to get the acting job done? Because when it comes to physical disability, I’m not sure audiences would buy him as a wheelchair-user if he weren’t sitting in a wheelchair. Props are important, yes, but they’re not a substitute for an actor.

The problem is that actors with visible disabilities are shut out of casting and that prevents careers — and clout. That’s the problem in the business of show. That’s why Cranston’s casting is being called out. 


This is why losing one more exceedingly rare lead role — a wheelchair-using character — is so infuriating. Using the tired “Because BUSINESS” is a sloppy excuse for systemic bias that produces abysmal hiring rates. Casting is currently a business that effectively places its every office on the second floor of an elevator-less building and then says no wheelchair-using actors showed up so they just don’t want it enough, etc., etc..


Visibly disabled actors are not considered “appropriate” for casting in roles where there’s no mention of disability. The truth is that, had he been a visibly disabled actor, casting statistics show how unlikely it is that Cranston would have been cast in the many, many roles that, together, have built his career and now provide his clout.  

If the industry is going to limit nearly all physically disabled actors to roles defined by physical disability, non disabled actors shouldn’t be surprised when there’s anger at seeing those roles lost to actors who are not physically disabled. If only 2% of roles are disabled characters, to begin with, and 95% are played by actors without disabilities, that’s a systemic employment barrier. Starvation seldom breeds generosity. 

This is why losing one more exceedingly rare lead role — a wheelchair-using character — is so infuriating. Using the tired “Because BUSINESS” is a sloppy excuse for systemic bias that produces abysmal hiring rates.

Casting is currently a business that effectively places its every office on the second floor of an elevator-less building and then says no wheelchair-using actors showed up so they just don’t want it enough, etc., etc..

When an actor like Bryan Cranston finally has to actually compete with physically disabled actors who are in his casting echelon, then we can have that thoughtful discussion about balancing representation and artistic expression. Until then, it’s just  another business getting away with unfair practices. And not even very creatively. 

A janky wheelchair named Janky Wheelchair

This is not a substitute for physically disabled actors. Courtesy of https://hiveminer.com/User/klickertrigger

And Now a Word from the FuckAbility™ Research Council on Who Will Win the Palme d’Visage Award: For Your Condescension

Matt Damon, MD (Master of Diversity) Hails Diversity in Film; Would Probably Remember to Include Disability Diversity if Prompted. Diversity.

Tonight, in beautiful downtown Switzerland — the Alps of the louge of suicide, home of the valley of the shadow of dignity, where the hills aren’t really all that alive — the FuckAbility™ Research Council is presenting its coveted Palme d’Visage award for the most condescending portrayal of disability in film.


This year’s nominees amazed us with their ability to FINALLY include disabled characters who fucked in groups of one or more. But, as can so often happen after such sexy-times, we were left in the dark saying to some character we barely knew, “That’s it? Seriously? OK, you know what? Please go.” 


And here are our nominees:

The Shape of Water, originally titled Children of a Lesser Black Lagoon, is about a lowly, lovely woman with no voice who is drawn into an inexplicable relationship with a sea-goblin that everyone is fascinated yet repelled by…but we’re not seeing how this is anything but an embarrassing obvious Weinsteinian fantasy wank.

Breathe is nominated, a film that our UK correspondent, The DisHon. Hilaria Mirth-Sitwell, gave one middle-finger up out of a possible two, because of the “twist” in which our hero decides to kill himself. It reminded us that the only thing more durable than the medical equipment he helped pioneer is the stigma of being dependent on another person.

Now this one is a shame, because Please Stand By‘s director, Ben Lewin, made the very down-to-earth fucking-while-disabled movie The Sessions, and as an openly disabled man, is aware of both disability culture and politics. Would that his earlier directness about interior character shaping responses to living with a disability had dropped by the set of Please Stand By. Because all we got here was a collection of external behaviors in search of a character, all stuck in a script full of strange contradictions and cliches. And there’s a screenplay. So. Was this some hackish meta-comment on how quirky and awkward screenplay-writers are, in general? We may never know. It’s an ouro-bouros of tropes. We do know this movie prompted a great idea for somebody’s future disability studies thesis: “The Role of Random Television References in Portrayals of Characters With Unspecified Neuroatypical Conditions-Slash-Identities: Being There, Rain Man, Please Stand By.”

Christ, this is tiring.

Our final nominee has been roundly criticized for its casting of sighted actors in a movie about blind characters. Ordinarily, we would be outraged, too. But the entire concept for this film is such a piece of shit, it’s hard to care. It began as a flawed pitch complete with a meet-crip — When Mr. Magoo Met Sally — then appears to have struck a highly lucrative deal with The Sunglass Hut that opened the door to Named Unblind Talent, i.e., Alec Baldwin and Demi Moore, and the film’s death spiral began before crashing clumsily into theaters like someone’s stereotypical picture of someone who is Blind.

And the most condescending portrayal of disability in film and winner of this year’s Palme d’ Visage goes to…

Blind!

Not only for the aforementioned casting half-assery but for outstanding condescension in its very bones.

We bestow the Palme d’Visage on the Blind producers who couldn’t see the giant, flashing problems with their movie about being blind.

This is baked-in, reduce to a glaze, from-scratch condescension, folks.  From it’s one-word title — we fucking HATE the phoned-in pretentiousness of one-word titles — that all-too-accurately signals that the movie will be about Doing Stuff While Blind. And not really interesting or terribly real stuff. Walking while blind! Using a white cane while blind! Wearing a blazer while blind! Getting read to while blind! Talking huskily about loss while blind! Because that’s what being blind is. It’s being blind. Being blind all the time. So very, very, very blind. Blind.

And, no, we never actually saw Blind. We figured if the producers could make a movie about people they haven’t seen, why did we need to see a movie before judging it?

Fuck that.


FuckAbility™ Research Council (FARC) is a piece of letterhead housed on the Tales From the Crip website. FARC’s mission is to raise awareness of hollywood’s lack of awareness that many disabled adults fuck in groups of one or more. All views expressed are subject to change and denial.

And Now a Word From the FuckAbility™ Research Council on the Film Breathe

FuckAbility™ Research Council’s The DisHon. Hilaria Mirth-Sitwell on Crippling Whilst Posh in Breathe 

Noblesse cripplege, not suicide, is the duty of the upper classes

(Never-on-Thames, England) Mr Serkus’s Breathe is, throughout much of its duration, stoutly British. The central lovers are married to one another and the story refrains from any Lawrencian tendency to evoke the natural world in a throbbing manner, with its gamekeepers and their delicate ways with the lady pigeons. Nor does the film make sickness or injury itself a manifestation of character. Which is not to say that Mr Cavendish’s external journey of affliction is disconnected from his internal moral development. No, it is clear that there can be no overcoming without the hurdle, and our hero finds his way forward by not only embracing Mrs Cavendish but also his sense of duty.  I do admire resolve in the face of adversity and in this respect I say to the film, Well done.

Now, about this business of inspiration: The film is inspirational because it is about the development of inspiring equipment, which is to say, a breathing apparatus. But then there is the ending. One has just seen Mr Cavendish not only triumph over his respiratory insufficiency but help his fellows in suffering. At this moment, he chooses to commit suicide because he wishes to die on his own terms. Ordinarily one must read the lesser ancients, or the wholly American, to find a more blatant have-it-your-way message than the phrase,  on one’s own terms. Is there a more more plaintive call for Nanny than this proud proclamation that one shall have one’s cake and eat it, too? 

One might understand a young man, in the throes of a new invalidism, chucking it all. But a mature husband and father, one who is living a useful life? Such a person should not be such a wet about the dying aspect of it. It’s only death, for God’s sake. It will happen when it happens, like a beating from a prefect, so best get over it and move on.

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