Most people are not familiar with the movie Hollywood Shuffle. It was a comedy that satirized the stereotyping of African Americans in film and television. I never saw the movie myself, but I’m very aware of the works of some of the co-writers of the film. Keenan Ivory Wayans and Damon Wayans were actors on the highly-popular early-1990s comedy sketch television series entitled “In Living Color.” The series had its funny moments in dealing with the social issues at that time, but where I lost respect for the show was when it started to run a regular featured character named Handiman.
Anyone who has ever seen “In Living Color” knows that the show was famous for pushing the envelope concerning race relations, sexuality and censorship. During its third season premiere, the show focused on the Los Angeles Riots that broke out in April of 1992 after four white officers were acquitted for beating Rodney King, a black motorist who was allegedly speeding though several residential streets in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. The show was remarkable in bringing serious social issues like poverty and racism to the forefront through its use of comedic relief, but I felt, and still do feel, that “In Living Color” pushed the limits too far by depicting people with disabilities that way it did.
The character was dressed in a blue latex suit that covered his head, and he was constantly babbling like an idiot and drooling on himself. I admit that I found the Handiman skits to be hilarious when when they first premiered. The disabled community had been non-existent in Hollywood up until then, and it continues to be non-existent today, so it was good to see some representation, and me not knowing how much of a negative image it was at the time, appreciated the recognition.
I was in my junior year in high school when Handiman made his debut. Ever since I was mainstreamed back in the fifth grade, I have always caught hell because of my disability. I remember being teased many a-day throughout grade school, high school and even college. Handiman perpetuated the stereotypes that people had about people with disabilities. Even to this day, the techniques have changed, but I pretty much know when people are trying to belittle me. Children aren’t as cunning or crafty to hide their emotions, so they would usually laugh or make “retarded-stupid” comments about me.
Adults think they’re more clever with their emotions. They either try to talk over my head as if I were a child or they’ll talk to another person who happens to be with me as if I needed a translator to interpret the same language. Another thing that adults do is avoid eye contact and cut me off when I’m speaking. These very things have been happening to me a lot recently, but I’ll save the details for another post.
Although the movie and television industry has arrogantly prided itself in promoting diversity, one group of people have been conveniently forgotten about. While the black-exploitation movies of the 60s and 70s have progressed to a level were Blacks, Hispanics and Asians are depicted in a more positive light, and the role of the Gay community in Hollywood is expanding at a rapid pace, where do people who have disabilities fit in?
Often times, when a disabled character is written into a script, the producers and directors will usually cast an able-bodied actor to play the part of that disabled character. Helen Keller is a prime example of Hollywood’s neglectful treatment of people who have disabilities. Instead of finding someone who was blind or deaf to play the part of the activist, the producers chose to cast Patty Duke in the 1962 version of a movie about Keller and they also chose Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) to play Helen Keller in a Broadway Musical. The last time I checked, neither of these actors had a disability.
Before I end, I would like to mention Daryl “Chill” Mitchell (paraplegic) and Chris Burke (Down syndrome) for being pioneers for people who have disablities. It’s nearly impossible to make it onto the small and big screens for the average person, but for people who have disabilities, it’s a guaranteed exclusion.
Maybe it’s time for the movie and television industry to get a reality check. You can typecast disabled people in the most stereotypical way. You make us seem buffoonish and child-like, but you can’t find or don’t attempt to find anyone who has an actual disabilitity to play the roles.