Disabled critics need to be included in the film critic diversity campaign

A recent study by USC revealed that film criticism remains white and male, but in the push for diversity are we still leaving some groups out?

On June 11th, the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism announced the results of a study involving inclusion in film criticism. The results of the study weren’t shocking — 77.8 percent of the critics reviewing the top 100 films of 2017 were white men. If you hang around Film Twitter regularly, you’ll understand this summation had all the impact of a study saying the sky is blue. Women and minorities in film criticism have complained about this for years. In fact, many marginalized critics joked that it seems like these statistics are trotted out every six months. But unlike in the past, movement on this was swift.

Actress Brie Larson vocally championed more diverse voices in criticism, a statement that’s now been picked up by other stars like Sandra Bullock and Jessica Chastain. Both the Sundance and Toronto International Film Festivals announced plans to help underrepresented critics get access to their events. It sounded like people actively wanted to do something, and it was heartening hearing my fellow critics champion a push for more women, people of color, and LGBTQ writers in the field of film criticism. But it was disappointing to hear they forget the marginalized group I belong to: the disabled community.

Disability is the most marginalized community in that hardly anyone ever thinks to include it as such. For film representation, this is even more troubling, especially considering how Hollywood seeks to get awards every year by trotting out the same stereotypes about people with disabilities for entertainment value. As a critic with a disability, it’s frustrating hearing able-bodied critics review a film about a group they don’t understand. Oftentimes my experiences (and reviews) significantly differ because I see how Hollywood plays on the ableism of mass audiences.

Disabled critics are out there, but becoming one with a disparate community like Film Twitter has added challenges, both in and out of your local theater. I’ve documented my issues with movie theater seating for the last couple months and it’s a key reason I believe critics forget to mention disabled critics in their calls for representation. In my experience the handicap section is often removed from the press section, leaving many of my local colleagues to bypass me entirely in their way up the steps to secure their seats. Many times I assume colleagues don’t even know I’m a critic, but a regular fan with a disability who gets in early to get a seat without a problem. The isolation is palpable. I end up talking to critics more online than I do at my average press screening.

The intersection of accessibility and marginalization go hand-in-hand, with the disabled community marginalized because of accessibility. Case in point, film festivals. Festivals are a great way to get your name out there, both to your audience and PR reps who can help further your access to talent and films. Attending a film festival is a struggle even if you’re an able-bodied writer, but if you’re traveling with a wheelchair or other adaptive equipment this is near impossible. The announcement that TIFF and Sundance were working to further access to marginalized critics led to some concerns from me as these festivals are cited to me as being inhospitable to disabled attendees. (Sundance takes place in Utah in the winter. Snow and wheelchairs don’t mix.) I’ve been fortunate to talk to Sundance about my concerns, but it’s hard to really believe change can be affected.

The issue with opening up access to disability isn’t as simple as saying “we want you to attend.” Movie theaters are beholden to the ADA (the Americans WIth Disabilities Act) and film festivals often cite that as their reason for failing to provide people with disabilities better access. It’s understandable. The ADA is a law that needs massive overhauling and to detail the problems with it takes more time than I have.

The law is flawed, so this leaves festivals and, yes, fellow critics, to champion the cause where the ADA fails. Festivals can essentially create new spaces for the disabled to take up the slack where the ADA drops the ball. Festivals can make press lines more accessible to people with disabilities, or even just invite them to interview talent; theaters can let in the disabled first to look at the seating before deciding if they want to stay. I also urge many festivals to create a “disabled liaison” able to answer questions for critics curious about attending but fearing they might be left unable to access basic services.

It’s also worth urging fellow critics to act as allies for their disabled colleagues. Say “hi” to them down at the bottom of the theater where the handicapped seating is located. Or, better yet, if you are an editor, maybe hire disabled writers. And I’m not saying hire them to review the next Me Before You or other movies about a disabled person — although they should be the first one you call. Like other marginalized groups, hire disabled writers to review Star Wars movies, rom-coms, films in general. (The fine folks at Culturess let me review movies about disability AND The Last Jedi.)

The simplest thing? Adding the word “disabled” to your list of groups you know are suffering from a lack of representation. When you’re showing your support make sure they’re on the list. We know to support women, people of color, trans and LGBTQ critics. Those who are disabled need to be on the list as well.

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