Congratulations to CODA, the 2022 Academy Award Winner for Best Motion Picture
As a recent study shows that there is an increased presence but still underrepresentation of disability in television and film, it is crucial to highlight CODA and its effects. The film deservingly has won critical acclaim. CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults and refers to an individual who was raised by at least one deaf parent. Based on the 2014 French-language La Famille Bélier film (which featured hearing actors playing deaf characters),CODA is about high school student Ruby Rossi, the only hearing person in her family. During this extremely powerful and well-done movie, Ruby is torn between family obligations (as her family relies on her to be their interpreter/translator) and her musical aspirations. This movie and its success are inspirational to social workers and their clients. People should never be counted out or dismissed merely for their disabilities.
This movie was the product of many hearing people and deaf actors. This collaboration shows that the contributions of a diverse group of people can yield success. Film funders opposed writer and director Sian Heder’s strong preference that deaf actors play the three main deaf characters (Ruby’s parents and older brother). Heder and Marlee Matlin, a prominent deaf actress who played Ruby’s mother Jackie in CODA, fought for deaf actors to play Ruby’s immediate family. Matlin refused to participate in this film if three deaf actors did not play those crucial roles. Matlin objected to the idea of a hearing actor playing her husband in CODA, remarking, “I put my foot down and said, 'If you do, I'm just out, that's it.' I can't see any actor putting on the costume of being deaf. We are not costumes to put on, not any longer.” She also said, “I've seen so many times in this industry where hearing actors take on the role of deaf characters. We've had enough of that. It's time for myself and other deaf actors to be able to speak up and say, enough is enough. We are here. Our talents are valid.” As a result, this movie lost its backing.
In 2021, it became the first movie at the Sundance Film Festival to win the following awards: Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Award, the Directing Award, and a Special Jury Prize for Best Ensemble. After CODA’s Sundance success, it was the subject of a bidding war, which Apple won for $25 million.
The deaf actors’ work added genuine authenticity to CODA. The general public saw real deaf individuals sign and had an inside glance at deaf culture. Deaf actors could integrate their own experiences into CODA. Many moments were authentic because of the deaf actors. Often, nondeaf CODAs interpret for their families. As the National Association of the Deaf CEO Howard Rosenblum states, “Nevertheless, there are still many hearing children today who function as the family interpreter for their deaf parents, although this should never happen in formal settings like a courtroom or a hospital where professional neutral interpreters are required.” CODA also shows exploitation of deaf people, with fish buying companies offering lower rates to Ruby’s deaf brother, who cannot hear the price that he actually should be asking.
Highlighting CODA’s authenticity, James Viscardi, a CODA, thinks that that movie accurately showed his experience, saying, “That isolated experience of being the ears/mouthpiece for your family, and how that forces a child to grow up fast, I thought rang very true to my own experience.”
CODA breaks the mold of many deaf characters being victims and needing assistance. The film portrays deaf people as small business owners and leaders in an effort toward more equitable fishing practices.
Furthermore, CODA dispels misconceptions about deaf people and the greater disability community. Most hearing people think that every deaf person can read lips and can do it from a large distance. The inability of some deaf people to read lips from the audience during Ruby’s concert shows that this belief is off-base. In addition, some people feel that deaf people might not like music because they cannot hear it. As a scene in CODA illustrates, deaf people can enjoy music through vibrations. Meanwhile, this movie’s sex scene between Ruby’s deaf parents goes against a societal view that people with disabilities “can’t be sexual or desirable.”
Through subtitles, this movie is inclusive to deaf movie watchers. Unlike the vast majority (if not all) of movies when they are shown in movie theaters, the film has subtitles when people are speaking English and during most scenes of people signing. Usually, there are subtitles in movies shown in US movie theatres only when people are speaking in languages other than English. Reportedly, CODA made history by becoming the first feature film to have subtitles in every theater in at least the United States. CODA’s subtitles allow people who are deaf and hard of hearing to watch this movie without special accommodations that they otherwise would need. However, all the signing in CODA was not captioned. Hearing people were able to experience the lack of comprehension that deaf people undergo sometimes.
An extremely powerful part of CODA is when the audio cut away during Ruby’s concert near the end of the movie. In this section with complete silence, the movie’s audience can see, but not hear, what happens. Thus, the movie audience could feel what deaf people do when they cannot hear (although some deaf people can hear a little and some wear hearing aids). This experience, which otherwise nondeaf people would not get perhaps except for virtual reality, could foster more empathy and understanding as they no longer completely understand deaf just intellectually.
CODA showed touching ways of communication between deaf and hearing people. At a bar, Ruby’s brother and a hearing female texted each other, illustrating that people with disabilities are not necessarily cognitively impaired. This movie also shows touching parts of Ruby’s music teacher Mr. Villalobos trying to connect with Ruby’s family, although many characters do not attempt to click with them. At the end of the film, he tried to sign something friendly to Ruby’s parents and brother. However, mistakenly, he signed, “Nice to f*ck you.” Instead of getting upset, Frank signed, “Nice to screw you too.”
CODA shows how important it is to be grateful even during difficult times. It can be easy to dwell on the negatives. Ruby’s classmate Miles tells Ruby that she has a “perfect life” and says that “Your parents are madly in love.” Ruby responds complaining about her house and talking about people laughing at her family. Although Ruby has family challenges, the fact is that her family has positives.
A key CODA song is Both Sides Now by Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell. This song makes sense for Ruby, who is ending her childhood and who is set to leave her family for the first time to go to college. The “I've looked at life from both sides now” symbolizes Ruby, who is the link between her deaf family and the hearing world. When Ruby sang this song at her audition at the end of the movie, she signed so her family in the balcony could understand.
While CODA is about the deaf community, it also has universal themes. Immigrants and children of immigrants can relate to this movie because many have had to perform the same type of interpreting for their families, including in uncomfortable situations. For example, Ruby was the go-between in a discussion between her parents and a physician, who said that due to a medical condition, Ruby’s parents must abstain from sex for two weeks. Similar to many youth, Ruby is teased. Ruby has been mocked about the way she talked and her family. In one hurtful school scene, many of Ruby’s schoolmates ridiculed her after Miles (whom she sings a duet with) told just one person about an uncomfortable situation with Ruby’s parents and sex. Jackie said she wanted Ruby to be deaf because she was worried about not connecting with a hearing child of her own. This feeling could be similar to one-race parents not having the same experiences as their biracial children. It is difficult for many parents, not just Ruby’s parents, to let their children move on. Like many kids, Ruby is embarrassed by her parents sometimes. She did not like the very loud music that her parents played while picking her up. Like many people, she has issues with her sibling.
CODA’s track record of success with major award ceremonies is heartwarming. CODA had 61 wins of 132 nominations, a high 46.2% winning percentage. Major honors include Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and Best Screenplay (Adapted) at the BAFTA Awards. CODA also went three for three at the Academy Awards, winning Best Motion Picture, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Troy Kotsur won the supporting actor award, becoming the first deaf man to win an acting Oscar and the second deaf person to win an acting Oscar, the first one being Matlin, who won Best Actress in 1987 for the movie Children of a Lesser God. When CODA won awards at the Oscars, the audience signed their applause by raising and moving their hands, an inclusive action that was different when many people in the audience did traditional hearing-version clapping when Matlin won her Oscar. In addition, when Heder accepted her award, her on-stage interpreter signed her speech, allowing her cast and the greater deaf community to understand her speech in real time. For the first time in Oscar history, certified deaf interpreters were on the Oscars YouTube and Oscars.com. It is extremely moving to see the Oscars be more inclusive.
These major awards help bring awareness to deaf culture and disabilities. It is possible that many people, who otherwise would not have seen CODA, will see/have seen it primarily because it won the Best Picture Oscar, educating generations about deaf culture.
This Apple TV Plus movie, with a small $10 million budget, ended up being the first streaming film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. The fact that this movie won so many awards, including the top Oscar (which is the major film award), shows that studios can change their usual practices and still do really well. They should hire more deaf actors, who are poorly represented in films, and other people with disabilities.
This movie is inspirational and represents people who are often overlooked. As deaf writer Sara Novic says, “Pretty much every time I see a deaf performer on stage or screen I cry, and CODA was no exception. I am so hungry for authentic representation of deaf people in our media that it's an overwhelming feeling just to see a glimpse of yourself on the screen. It's almost a relief.”
Before CODA won multiple Academy Awards, plans to develop it into a stage musical by Deaf West were announced. Created in 1991, Deaf West is the United States’ “Deaf-centered storytelling” theater. As Deaf West’s artistic director DJ Kurs says, “As a Deaf person, I knew from the start that CODA would make a perfect musical: It addresses our relationship with music and how we move through the world of sound like immigrants in a foreign country, learning new, seemingly arbitrary rules on the fly.”
Since the Oscars, CODA has continued to be in the news. Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke at the graduation ceremony of Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hard of hearing. Gallaudet University honorary trustee Matlin spoke about CODA while introducing Cook, who also mentioned CODA while delivering his address. At the same ceremony when film legend Julie Andrews received the American Film Institute’s (AFI) Life Achievement Award, Heder won the AFI’s 2022 Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Medal, recognizing “the extraordinary creative talents of AFI Alumni who embody the qualities of filmmaker Franklin J. Schaffner.” Kotsur received a key to Mesa, Arizona, where he was born and raised. While growing up in Mesa, Kotsur was the subject of bullying. As he signed in relation to this honor, “They are not looking at me as a deaf person, but they are looking at me as a talented person and that is what is important to me.”
CODA’s success has appeared to open up opportunities for deaf actors, writers, directors, and other entertainment figures. CODA’s Kotsur will star in a new Disney+ series that is based on the real story of the California School for the Deaf Riverside’s football team, the Cubs. During the Cub’s undefeated 2021 season, they made it to the California State Championship. Deaf people will work on the series on both sides of the cameras. Executive producers include Kotsur and Matlin.
CODA is not the only recent groundbreaking deaf-related onscreen entertainment. Born deaf, Lauren Ridloff was the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first deaf superhero in Eternals. Additionally, an almost completely silent episode of the Hulu show Only Murders in the Building centered on a deaf character.
Meanwhile, there is also progress with other disabilities in terms of film and television shows. The Middle Eastern and North African version of Sesame Street introduced Ameera, a character who uses a wheelchair or crutches due to a spinal cord injury. Disney+ is creating a film adaptation of the novel Out of My Mind about a 12-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. Individuals with cerebral palsy and the augmentative and alternative communication device community are assisting with this production. The popular South Korean TV show Extraordinary Attorney Woo, which was Netflix’s most-watched non-English program during some of the summer of 2022, is about a lawyer with autism. This show promoted conversations about autism in South Korea, where developmental disabilities are a taboo topic for a lot of people. As of August 2022, Respectability and Netflix are creating a new Children’s Content Lab for TV writers, animators and creative executive with disabilities. This program will focus on children’s programming and comes after the 2019 RespectAbility Entertainment Lab, which tried to elevate writers, directors, and crew with disabilities. In September 2022, CBS launched the “CBS Performers with Disabilities Initiative” that ensures that CBS’s programming consists of meaningful representation and inclusion for all underrepresented groups, including performers with disabilities in series regular, guest star, or costarring roles in current series and pilots, playing characters specifically written with a disability as well as roles that do not specify one. This plan begins with the current 2022–2023 television season. On September 14th, Netflix debuted the Heartbreak High reboot, which features autistic actress Chloe Hayden playing a teenager with autism. The new Ralph & Katie show is the first BBC prime-time show to have lead actors with disabilities and a crew of mainly people with disabilities. This show’s title characters have Down’s Syndrome and are played by actors with Down’s Syndrome. Its director, Jordon Hogg, has cerebral palsy. In September 2022, news broke that children’s television show Thomas and Friends will have its first character with autism. Two actors with autism will provide the voice of this series regular.
However, disabilities are still underrepresented in on-screen entertainment. Film does better than television in terms of representing characters with disabilities. According to the recent Nielsen study, of forms of entertainment that highlight major disabilities, 59% were feature films, 18% were regular series, and the rest were short films, limited series, and TV movies or specials. That study shows that just 4.2% (6,895) of movies and TV shows between 1918 to 2022 had major disability content. Even if movies highlight disabilities, often people with disabilities portray characters with disabilities. As of 2021, even though the number of characters with disabilities increased, actors who do not have disabilities play 95% of those roles. It might not be surprising that most people with disabilities, who comprise 26% of the nation’s population, feel that media does not accurately portray their groups.
Let’s hope that CODA continues to inspire much more meaningful representation of deaf people, other individuals with disabilities, and other marginalized humans. As Heder says, “I hope that this film and Apple’s powerful support will help kick down some doors standing in the way of inclusion and representation and pave a path for more stories that center characters from the Deaf and Disabled community. The world has waited too long for these stories to be told. Now is the time. No more excuses.” Seeing and understanding everyone can yield a better society than the current one that is too often fractured on the basis of demographic traits. Deaf people and all with disabilities should also be involved with every aspect of movies and life.
In addition, recognize people with disabilities for who they are. They no longer should be marginalized. As deaf actress Rose Ayling-Ellis said, “It is not frustrating being deaf. Being deaf is my proudest identity. Having a disability is not a barrier. I am disabled because I live and work in a world that disables me.”
Table: Children of a Lesser God vs CODA
— Native Washingtonian Miriam Edelman graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University, with majors in political science and urban studies and a concentration in history. For almost five years, she worked on Capitol Hill in personal offices and on committees in the US Senate and the US House of Representatives. In May 2012, she graduated with a master’s in public administration from Cornell University, where she was inducted into Pi Alpha Alpha, the national honorary society for public administration. Primarily for her work founding the Jade Moore Forum on American Politics in memory of her late friend, Edelman was one of two graduate student recipients of the Cornell-wide Distinguished Leadership Award. She also has a Master of Science in Social Work (focusing on policy) from Columbia University. She aims to continue her career in public service.