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D: Jenni Gold / 98m

With: Jane Seymour, Ben Affleck, Beau Bridges, Geena Davis, Richard Donner, Peter Farrelly, Rick Finkelstein, Jamie Foxx, Taylor Hackford, Robert David Hall, Gale Anne Hurd, William H. Macy, Camryn Manheim, Garry Marshall, Marlee Matlin, RJ Mitte, Martin F. Norden, Graeme Sinclair, Gary Sinise, James Troesh, Danny Woodburn

Hands up anyone who can remember what Hiccup’s disability is in the How to Train Your Dragon movies. No? Well, he lost his left leg, and needed a prosthesis. Now, don’t be sorry or feel you have to apologise for not remembering that, because for once, Hiccup’s disability didn’t define his character, or stop him continuing to take to the skies with Toothless. It’s an almost perfect representation of a disability as portrayed in a movie. It gets a scene, and an acknowledgment, and then the character carries on as before. But as Jenni Gold’s perceptive and illuminating documentary shows us, it’s not always been this way. Beginning with a look back at the very early days of cinema, and the first portrayal of a disability in the movies, in The Fake Beggar (1898), Gold shows how Hollywood (in particular) and disabled characters have had an uneasy relationship. The standard approach was accepted but patronising: if you’re disabled and good, you’ll be rewarded; if you’re disabled and bad, you’ll be punished.

Stereotypical approaches such as these lasted for a long time, and though ex-Army veteran Harold Russell came along in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and impressed both critics and audiences alike (and bagged two Oscars for his role in the process, a feat never repeated since), disabled people were still cruelly under-represented in movies and television until the Sixties, when attitudes began to change and disabilities began to be portrayed in a much more responsible, and more inclusive, fashion. From TV’s Ironside (1967-1975), to the Oscar-winning Coming Home (1978), disabilities started to become more and more accepted in the mainstream, but as CinemAbility points out, it was a slow process. Momentum continued to be gained through the Eighties and Nineties, but it’s only really in the last fifteen years or so that portrayals of disability have become more prevalent and/or accepted. There’s still the old argument about whether a non-disabled actor should play a disabled character, and some movies, such as Million Dollar Baby (2004) still come under fire for being ostensibly negative, but by and large the industry is getting to grips with the idea that disabled characters are a part of society and shouldn’t be excluded.

For many of us, disability is something that we’re aware of, but don’t always see. Perhaps the most telling moment in the movie is when William H. Macy, who has been a spokesperson for United Cerebral Palsy since 2002, admits that the script he’s currently writing doesn’t include a disabled character – because he never thought of it. And if anything – and aside from all the expected quotes about how disabled people shouldn’t be treated differently, and how they can do anything that “normal” people can do – Macy’s admission is the key to the whole issue: if even those with a good understanding of disabilities aren’t on the “right wavelength”, how can progress be consistent? Or be counted as progress? It’s a weighty message in a movie that strikes a fine balance between the seriousness of its subject matter and the humour that’s never too far away from the whole issue (witness the clips from Jim Troesh’s The Hollywood Quad (2008) and make your mind up if laughter and disability can’t go hand in prosthetic). Gold has assembled a good selection of disabled and non-disabled interviewees, all of whom offer views and opinions that are relevant, and the historical perspective allows for glimpses of political and social advances through the years, and the impact they’ve had on the disabled community. It’s a thought-provoking documentary, honest and sincere, and very, very entertaining.

Rating: 8/10 – with a plethora of anecdotes and reminiscences that illustrate the continuing struggle that disabled actors and movie makers have in being accepted on the same level as everyone else, CinemAbility is a timely reminder that there’s still a lot of work to be done in achieving full inclusivity; touching on key milestones such as The Miracle Worker (1962) and My Left Foot (1989), there’s a wealth of overlooked detail here that also serves as a potent reminder of what has been achieved so far.