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The Best Disability Films - A Very Short List

By Susan M. LoTempio

I'm all for "Murderball" - not the game but the movie. It's gritty, it's fast and it's a fascinating look at the quad jock lifestyle. Now that the documentary is out on DVD, hopefully a lot more people will see it. (Even though it got a lot of buzz when it was released in July, its box office was disappointing.)

Watching Mark Zupan and his teammates was a hoot. Seeing them interviewed on TV and in magazine spreads was another hoot. Those guys were enjoying - perhaps even creating - a crip cult status never seen before - even if it lasted about 15 minutes. Perhaps they'll get a few more minutes of fame with the release of the DVD.

Murderball (2005)
Directors: Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro
List Price: $29.99
Amazon.com Price: $20.99

Read our review

I gave "Murderball" four stars when I reviewed it for my newspaper because it's that good. Still, I'm disappointed that this film, which gave disability issues so much focus, was solely about the jock world. Hollywood sure does love a crip jock story, just as much as it loves a teary-eyed crip inspiration story, and that old chestnut, the crip pity story. But how many of us can relate to the jock lifestyle? (I admit to dabbling in wheelchair racing in college, though the real motivation was not scoring medals but scoring with the guys.)

So I set out to find a movie that spoke to me as a woman with a disability - one that didn't concentrate on wheelchairs crashing into each other, locker room blather and overdoses of testosterone.

During the search, I discovered www.disabilityfilms.co.uk, a British website that lists 2,500 feature films using disability as a major or minor theme. On this fascinating site, you'll bump into titles like "Frida,' (polio) "Hillary and Jackie" (multiple sclerosis) "The Other Sister" (mental disability) and "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" (polio, scoliosis, deafness) - a pretty eclectic list of films, which have all been Hollywoodized.

Not particularly relevant to me, but huge hits cited on the site, were "Coming Home," "My Left Foot" and "Born on the Fourth of July" (if you can stomach Tom Cruise in that role, which I can't). Somewhere in my research I found references to the use of disability as a "prop" in films such as "Bubble Boy" and "Steel Magnolias." In "Edward Scissorhands" and "Elephant Man," disability is used for the "freak factor." Pretty disgusting labels if you ask me.

Still, there are some good films. I loved Dame Judi Dench's portrayal of author Iris Murdoch in "Iris," but slipping into Alzheimer's isn't a huge motivator at this stage in my life. I rented "Passion Fish," which starred Mary McDonnell as a newly spinal-cord injured actress who is mad as hell about her disability; Alfre Woodard plays her caretaker. While this 1992 film depicts well McDonnell's gradual acceptance of her new life as a wheeler, it gets pretty sappy when the writers start throwing in Woodard's addiction issues.

So, after researching, renting films and combing the offerings on Netflix, I returned to an old favorite as the movie I can most identify with: "Notting Hill."

I can hear the collective groaning, but hear me out. First off, because disability is a minor theme in this 1999 Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant film, its treatment is neither inspirational nor pitying (and certainly not jock-driven).

The character in the wheelchair, played by non-disabled actress Gina McKee, is just one member of a strong ensemble. In the role of one of Grant's close friends, we see her in scenes eating with the group, drinking with them, getting sloshed, and fawning over Roberts' celebrity character. She's mainstreamed into the story, and while the other characters reference her disability, they don't do it in a big way. In other words, she's a fully drawn human being, not the crip stereotype we usually get in movies.

Which is why, I guess, I can forgive the unfortunate fact that an actress with a disability wasn't cast in this role. Truthfully, McKee and her wheelchair are so in sync with each other, I thought she was disabled. Months later, when I saw her in another movie playing a "standing" role, I was crushed.

Should we be outraged she got the role rather than a wheeler? Of course. Should we be surprised? Of course not.

The Screen Actors Guild recent study on disabled performers in the entertainment industry found that not only do they lack the chance to play "non-traditional roles" (such as a mother or father), they also aren't give the chance to play roles written for characters with disabilities, which is outrageous.

Still, Gina McKee clearly has respect for her character named Bella. She plays her with a dignity and quiet strength I found moving and which reminded me of many disabled women I have known over the years.

Lucky for her, she also got to hang around with Hugh Grant, a guy as high on my personal hottie list as those jocks.  

Susan LoTempio is an assistant managing editor at The Buffalo News, Buffalo, NY. She writes about disability and participates in seminars around the country on how media cover disability issues.



thanks for your article. i haven't seen "murderball" yet, but folks in my disability community have been pretty critical of the hypermasculinity and patriotism that are prominent in the community documented.

as far as the movie i can most relate to, i would have to say "benny & joon." i think it's a great film. even though it's a comedy it deals with serious and important issues. how does a working-class family deal with psychiatric disabilities? when is it ok for a nondisabled family member to decide what kind of independence to give the disabled member? and, of course, it's a classic johnny depp appearance!

thanks again, and take care.

love billie rain

I agree - I love that character in "Notting Hill" as well. It was very touching near then end when she's at the dance, and you see her dancing with her husband, but see only her feet. It was subtle, but a huge message of acceptance.

I also recommend "Waterdance." Sexuality is addressed directly & some of the humor is perfectly outrageous ("it's a good thing we're alreadt paralyzed").

I have yet to see Murderball myself, though I do look forward to it. I have heard good things.

An oldie I like is Mask. I like the fact that the focus is on systemic issues.
The mom doing her damndest to maneuver through the med system dealing with docs who don't get it.
Cher takes on the schools is excellent theater!
The film also deals very effectively with stigma and paternalism that comes from both outside and inside families.
They could have made a firmer point about why minorities and a stigmatized group were his strongest supports in the community (the African American teacher and the motorcycle gang- especially the guy who stutters).
Overall, I think it is a very astute film.
He successfully comes off as basically a typical well liked guy doing the best he can with an exceptionally difficult life more than a hero.
How many people "got" it is hard to know, but these kinds of undertones have a great deal of value.

anyone seen 'the sea inside' by javier bardem? i thought it portrayed one side of the long-raging debate on our 'right to live'...

Art Blaser reviewed 'The Sea Inside' for Ragged Edge. You can read his review at http://www.raggededgemagazine.com/reviews/blaserseainside.html

I'd like to recommend a great little older film: Gaby, a true story. It realistically depicts issues such as sexuality and choice. Very well done.

As a public service, here are couple of disability-themed films released in 2005 that did not feature wheelchairs crashing into each other (not that there is anything wrong with that...)

39 Pounds of Love:

Little Man

Best, Lawrence

I liked "Murderball" a lot for a view into a subculture I'd only rarely glimpsed...I think it's great, as long as you expect it to apply to one group of guys and not be looking for the Definitive Crip Experience Movie.I think it is sad there are so few movies about us that we even try(To find The Movie, that is, not to make movies) Still looking for say...a crip "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," "The Women's Room""Sex in The Accessible City"(I'm kidding about thar last one. Kinda.)

I am looking into the exactly same thing as you, may I recomend Inside Im Dancing for its gritty depiction of people living with disability and its great sense of humour. Also I recomend Hows Your News a great American documentary follwing a group of disabled people across America.I myself have started making films with learning difficulties in an attempt to rememdy this great gap in depicting the minority. I find it absurd that a minority of society has no films made for them or by them. Its media censorship of the worst kind in my opinion I would welcome any opinions on this.

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