For over one hundred years, disabled characters have been ubiquitous in Hollywood movies. Characters in films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, A Christmas Carol, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, Charly, Born on the Fourth of July and Million Dollar Baby are demonized, sainted, infantilized and desexualized. As villains – Mr. Potter, Elijah in Unbreakable — they are embittered, thus driven to kill. As victims – Million Dollar Baby — they are not whole people and thus driven to suicide. As pariahs – Elephant Man — they are shunned. As paragons – Tiny Tim, Johnny Belinda — they suffer greatly and are therefore closer to God.
Using the notoriously misunderstood film Freaks as a frame, the WPA Collective, led by artists with disabilities, is in production on Code of the Freaks, the first documentary to critically examine Hollywood representations of characters with disabilities. Using examples from as far back as 1898 through the present, we interrogate how the disabled character is used through the decades, asking what this imagery means, who is served, how it shapes our ideas about disabled people and how representations of disabled characters have evolved.
Our Tour Guides for this exploration are our own rowdy and bitingly hilarious group of disabled activists, artists and critics. Our “cast” breaks it down, deflates, pokes fun and seriously analyzes metaphorical movie trends: Cure Me or Kill Me, Magical Creature, Monsters and Villains, Mentally Ill Maniacs and Blind Women Victims vs Blind Men Superheroes.
Susan Nussbaum, producer/writer
Carrie Sandahl, producer/writer
Aly Patsavas, producer/writer
Salome Chasnoff, director/writer
Jerzy Rose, director of photography
Meredith Zielke, sound
This week’s Fun Fact:
Jack Hawkins was an English actor whose film career spanned from 1930 to 1973 (“Jack Hawkins”). Hawkins can be described as “slender, ruggedly handsome, and—to American audiences, at least—thoroughly British” (“Jack Hawkins, the Actor”). The height of his career came during the 1950s. Perhaps he is more widely known for his roles in The Bridge Over River Kwai, (1957) Ben-Hur, (1959) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). One of the more interesting roles of his that I discovered is Mandy, (aka Crash of Silence) (1952) where he plays Dick Searle, the Headmaster of a residential deaf school in Manchester, England, teaching deaf children how to speak and lip read. This practice reflects a belief in “oralism” at the time, where “deaf people can and should communicate without the use of sign language, relying exclusively on lip reading and oral speech” (Nielsen 96). Interestingly, Hawkins “lost” his voice after his larynx was removed due to cancer in 1966. He continued to act in films though, using his own voice “by using his diaphragm and stomach muscles” for short lines and having his lines dubbed by other actors for the longer speaking parts (“Jack Hawkins, the Actor”).
– Jonathan Bartholomy, RAFF Chicago Planning Committee Member
If you would like to get involved with RAFF Chicago please contact us at (773) 203-5039 or email Matt Lauterbach at email@example.com
“Jack Hawkins.” imdb,
Accessed 11 July 2017.
“Jack Hawkins, the Actor, Is Dead at 62.” New York Times, 19 July 1973, p. 38.
thoroughly-british-made-debut.html. Accessed 11 July 2017.
Nielsen, Kim E. A Disability History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012.