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Category Archives: Deaf Actors

Let’s See More #DeafTalent in Hollywood

deaftalent-hashtag-twitter-01Over the past couple weeks, the #DeafTalent movement spread like wildfire across social media. Using this hashtag, members of the Deaf community publicly spoke out against the cultural appropriation of deafness in movies and TV. With so many talented deaf/HoH performer working to catch their big break in Hollywood, it is inexcusable that hearing actors and actresses continue being cast for these roles. Deaf parts belong to deaf performers– people who understand the experience of hearing loss and can accurately portray deaf characters. Just as blackface is not an acceptable way to depict a black character, having a non-deaf actor pretend to be deaf is irresponsible, unethical, and offensive.

deaftalent-hashtag-deaf-movie-roles-02The #DeafTalent hashtag began making waves after a NY Daily News interview with Catalina Sandino Moreno raised red flags in the Deaf community. Moreno, a hearing actress, was cast to play a deaf woman in the leading role of her new film Medeas. But in the NYDN interview, it became clear that Moreno has had very little exposure to deafness or Deaf culture. After watching the trailer for the film and then learning that a deaf actress had even advised Moreno not to play the character, many deaf actors used the internet to express their frustration. Academy Award winning deaf actress Marlee Matlin weighed in on the Medeas controversy in a series of tweets which pointed out the cultural insensitivity of the filmmakers. She particularly addressed their use of the term “deaf mute,” which many in the deaf community regard as outdated and oppressive.

The community rallied to let it be known that hearing actors taking on deaf roles is simply not appropriate. As talented deaf individuals struggle to find work in Hollywood, due to a lack of roles, it is problematic that the few available deaf parts are being given to non-deaf performers.

Deaf artists and allies began using #DeafTalent to point out the cultural disconnect in our mainstream media, to highlight those who have succeeded against the odds, the and to help promote the many talented deaf people who are seeking work in the film and TV industry. Actress Amber Zion created a grapic demanding Hollywood to “Stop allowing hearing actors playing deaf characters.” This meme was widely reposted across social media, raising awareness about the #DeafTalent campaign. Filmmaker Jules Dameron, who recently released a Disney-approved ASL version of “Let it Go” from Frozen, used her Tumblr page to track the #DeafTalent movement as it grew. This two-part post amplifies the voice of the Deaf community by providing a comprehensive #DeafTalent timeline with videos and links.

deaftalent-hashtag-deaf-movie-roles-04Switched at Birth actor Nyle DiMarco posted a video on YouTube in which he says he is “disappointed and insulted” by the choice to cast hearing actors in deaf roles. “We deaf people, including People of Color, transgendered, and disabled people all have true experiences,” DiMarco explains. “We all are talented people! But they keep on casting actors other than us. Our roles have been stolen. They keep stealing our opportunities.”

The issues surrounding the #DeafTalent campaign have been simmering for decades, and they deserve mainstream attention. Many members of the Deaf community have done a great job dissecting the problems that exist in Hollywood, and proposing ethical solutions. There are some very intelligent and talented deaf individuals attempt to educate the media about portrayals of deaf/HoH in film and TV.

Thomsen Young wrote an excellent piece on The Silent Grapevinedeaftalent-im-mad-deaf-movie-roles-05 that explains why #DeafTalent matters. Young concludes that this movement goes beyond Hollywood, it is a demand for opportunities in all areas of life. Deaf YouTuber Rogan Shannon posted an impassioned video titled I’M MAD where he elaborates on why non-deaf actors in hearing roles is a cultural problem. Another deaf YouTuber, Rikki Poytner tells Hollywood she “has a bone to pick” with them in her video. Poytner’s straightforward take on the #DeafTalent campaign is both entertaining and educational!

Meanwhile, proving the value of #DeafTalent, deaf actress Treshelle Edmond performed a beautiful ASL rendition of the National Anthem at the Super Bowl. The Deaf West production of Tony Award winning musical “Spring Awakening” wowed audiences, selling out and receiving critical acclaim from both deaf and hearing audiences. If Hollywood can’t deaftalent-hashtag-deaf-movie-roles-07find capable #DeafTalent, it’s because they aren’t really looking for it. While deaf performers compete with hearing actors to fill deaf roles, it’s becoming clear that general audiences crave true diversity. But when will the film and TV industry wake up?

As I watch my deaf nieces become beautiful talented young women, I know we must fight for all children to grow up in a world of possibility. The #DeafTalent campaign is about more than just deaf actors in Hollywood, it is about creating opportunities in work and in life. It is about empowerment and deaf self-advocacy. It is about breaking down the cultural attitudes that serve as barriers, keeping skilled and capable deaf individuals from pursuing their dreams. #DeafTalent is about providing opportunities for deaf people, and preserving their right to be successful.

Deaf Culture in Hollywood

Think about the last five movies you saw. Were there any deaf individuals in them? When was the last time you saw a deaf weather person delivering the forecast? It is estimated that nearly 20% of Americans live with some form of hearing loss, yet deaf and hard of hearing society members remain oppressed by mainstream culture.

Deaf people may be quiet, but they are certainly not invisible.

National Association for the DeafLast week, I had the pleasure of attending the first ever NAD Breakthrough Awards Gala in Hollywood. Throughout the evening, we celebrated the past, present, and future of deaf issues in cinema and TV. I had privilege of sharing a room with some of the most prominent deaf figures in popular culture. This landmark event was held as a benefit for the National Association for the Deaf — the oldest civil rights organization in the United States.

Marlee Matlin & Lydia Callis

The gala was filled with so many people whom I admire for their passion and dedication to their work– actors, writers, and musicians who have paved the way toward deaf/ HoH representation in the media. The past few years have been notable for an increase in deaf visibility, due in part to the breakthrough success of the ABC Family drama Switched at Birth. The show was acknowledged a number of times at the Gala for not only featuring deaf actors and actresses, but for bringing real Deaf culture issues to mainstream audiences.

Marlee Matlin is perhaps the most well known deaf actress in Hollywood; she was the youngest person to win an Oscar for Best Actress for her role in Children of a Lesser God. When it came out in 1986, it was the first movie since the silent film era to feature a deaf actor as a lead character. Can you believe that Hollywood completely overlooked the possibility of deaf film and movie stars for over 50 years? Matlin proved to Hollywood that deafness does not make a character un-relatable for hearing audiences. On the contrary, Matlin opened people’s eyes to the wide range of engaging characters deaf actors can portray.

These days, Hollywood is slowly recognizing the possibility of powerful deaf/ HoH characters. Deaf actors like Katie Leclerc and Sean Berdy, who play lead roles in Switched at Birth; and Shoshonnah Stern, who had recurring roles on Fox’s Lie To Me and Showtime’s Weeds, are getting the prominent parts they deserve. Audiences are finally getting a taste of sign language communication and casting diversity. Even reality TV is starting to feature deaf individuals, for example: Project Runway contestant Justin LeBlanc; Luke Adams, who teamed up with his hearing mother to compete in several seasons of The Amazing Race; and deaf Chopped contender Kurt “The Irish Chef” Ramborger.

Deaf influence in Hollywood reaches behind the lens of the camera, as well. Bernard Bragg was recognized at the NAD Gala for co-founding the National Theater of the Deaf, which has worked toward quality training for deaf performers. No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie premiered in 2013 as the first commercial feature in American history with an exclusively deaf executive producer team and deaf director. Deaf film companies such as ASL Films and Rustic Lantern Films are empowering creative deaf cinematographers to pursue their visions. D-PAN (Deaf Professional Artists Network) has worked to organize and provide a platform for deaf artists of all types. Engaging young deaf people in the media revolution is critical to the movements’ long-term success. Camp Mark Seven, a camp in upstate for NY for deaf youths, has started a film program for aspiring filmmakers 13-16.At the Gala, the word of the night was Breakthrough. We were celebrating those who have smashed through the oppressive barriers of perception to demonstrate that differently abled people are limited more by society than their individual “disabilities.” This is not just true of the entertainment industry; we are seeing deaf empowerment in a number of cultural outlets.

Sean Forbes NAD Breakthrough Awards Gala WCSPZuJHHqXl

Sean Forbes, deaf rapper and D-Pan co-founder, closed out the NAD Gala with his signature fully-accessible musical performance. Only a few months ago Derrick Coleman, the first deaf offensive player in the NFL, made headlines all over the country when his team went to the Superbowl. Deaf since birth, Gregory Hlibok became the first disabled head of the Federal Communication Commission’s Disability Rights Office in 2011. And of course let us not forget the incredible Claudia Gordon, the first deaf African American female lawyer, who has become the first deaf individual appointed to the White House as the Public Engagement Advisor for the Disability Community in the Office of Public Engagement.

Claudia Gordon & Lydia Callis at the NAD Awards Gala 2014

These are only a few of the most visible figures smashing through barriers and silencing doubters. There are many more out there, and the numbers grow each day. Still, it is not enough! Deaf kids need deaf role models, and hearing audiences are more than ready for complex deaf characters. Hollywood, and our society at large, need to stop reinforcing a tired status quo. Until we see a deaf Late Night host, or Oscar award winning deaf director, or a proudly Deaf United States president, we can not claim to live in a society of equal representation. As long as ASL is considered a foreign language in America, we still have work to do!