The big summer action movie “Baby Driver” made waves in the Deaf community — CJ Jones, a Deaf actor, plays the deaf foster father of the film’s protagonist, Baby. It’s exciting for two reasons: deaf characters rarely appear in big mainstream films, and it’s even rarer that deaf people play themselves.
But the fight for authentic representation is far from over.
Many in the Deaf community now have their eyes on the new Todd Haynes film, “Wonderstruck,” which makes its mainstream theater debut today. It spotlights the Deaf community, yet stars Julianne Moore as one of the deaf protagonists. Moore is only the latest in a long line of hearing actors playing deaf roles — most recently Chris Heyerdahl in the new Syfy-turned-Netflix series “Van Helsing.”
Filmmakers have offered many excuses for not casting deaf actors — everything from not knowing where to find a one, to asserting a deaf woman would get injured during the shooting of an action sequence.
More disappointing than Hollywood’s justifications, however, is the way the Deaf community’s critiques are portrayed as political correctness run amok.
Consider the way the public treats other Hollywood excuses: When the spotlight falls, for example, on the film industry’s lack of racial and gender diversity, consumers and journalists alike are rightfully outraged; when the same thing happens to deaf artists, the mainstream offers only silence.
The reason could lie in a fundamental misunderstanding of deafness: Hearing people view deafness as a deficiency rather than a separate linguistic context, worldview and culture. Conversely, Deaf people who identify with the Deaf community and use a signed language — here in the United States, American Sign Language (ASL) — consider their Deafhood their primary cultural identity. Those who identify this way use the capital “D” to mark the difference between the physicality of not hearing and the social, cultural and linguistic implications of thinking and communicating in a language other than English.
But what is Deaf culture? Like many others, it is rooted its language.
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The manual modality of signed language gives rise to common mannerisms and codes of behavior in Deaf settings. By incorporating gestures, movement and facial expressions, Deaf people tend to be far blunter with one another than considered appropriate in hearing company. Stomping on the floor, for example, or throwing something at a Deaf person (known as “beanbagging”) are accepted ways of getting someone’s attention.
What the hearing world calls “hearing loss,” the Deaf community counters with “Deaf gain.” It avoids terminology like “handicapped,” “hearing impaired” or “mute.”
I’m speaking from the North American Deaf cultural experience, which uses ASL. Sign languages are not universal; they sprout organically from communication within a deaf population and develop over time, like spoken languages.