Actress, Paralympian, and double above-the-knee amputee from birth, Katy Sullivan has written an open letter to Dwayne Johnson for playing a disabled veteran who is an above the knee amputee. Sullivan's letter appeared on Deadline Hollywood on Monday. Sullivan, whose credits include such productions as My Name Is Earl, Last Man Standing and NCIS: New Orleans, wished Johnson a congratulatory note, but followed with a request that Johnson stop taking roles like the one in Skyscraper.
Your most recent film, Skyscraper, opens this weekend. Cheers! Congratulations! However, my request is for you to stop saying “Yes” to roles like the one in that movie. And here’s why…
Individuals with disabilities make up almost 20% of the world’s population. We are the largest minority and the “most marginalized group in Hollywood,” according to a 2017 study conducted by Fox, CBS and the Ruderman Family Foundation (an organization I know you are aware of and engaging with now). The study found that in last year’s TV season, less than 2% of characters were written to have a disability and of THOSE characters, 95% of the roles were filled with able-bodied actors.
The letter from Sullivan falls on the heels of Scarlett Johansson’s casting as a trans man in Rub & Tug. Johansson’s decision to accept the role sparked so much backlash and controversy that Johansson withdrew from the role. Johansson said in a statement that learned a lot from the LGBTQ community.
Marissa Martinelli, assistant editor at SLATE who also reported on the story, expressed it succinctly:
While Hollywood is undergoing a (still very recent) reckoning when it comes to casting white actors in roles meant for people of color or cisgender actors as transgender characters, disability is routinely left out of the larger representation conversation. And Sullivan ... can speak to the effect on disabled actors when there are few disabled roles left available to them.
Indian Country Today's own correspondent Lisa J. Ellwood, who is multiply-disabled, a disability-rights activist and is housebound, also contributed to the conversation via email:
"As with the likes of Scarlett Johansson and Eddie Redmayne in roles that should have gone to actors from the marginalized communities they were portraying, the standard defense of Dwayne Johnson [taking on the role of an amputee] in his latest film is “They wanted the name recognition and bankability that The Rock gives the movie.”
The films Moonlight & Get Out, proved that you don’t need big names in starring roles to have box office and critical success. The only way to discover new acting talent and make THEM bankable is by casting, says Ellwood.
Ellwood continued, "It’s worth noting that name recognition and bankability also comes through as a producer or director. A great example of this is 12 Years A Slave. Brad Pitt's production company backed the project and this in turn brought in more financing from other studios. Rather than taking a leading role, Pitt took on a small part. This allowed his name to be traded on to drum up interest. Yet he was also clear that it wasn’t his film. That’s a great model to follow."
"Johnson has enough star power to have done something similar. And given that some disabled film reviewers have said that the depiction of disability in this film is actually a step up from the usual narratives -- it would have been even more powerful with an amputee in the role. Playing a disabled character has always been one of the quickest routes to being taken more seriously as an actor and for awards — and it’s past time that disabled actors, writers, et al were given these opportunities. It’s nice that Johnson is now apparently calling for disabled actors to be given a shot, but I’m not sure that it would have even happened without the controversy," said Ellwood.
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Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor and senior correspondent, Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter - @VinceSchilling