Representing disability on screen has been a minefield for many years, between well-meaning but ultimately misguided attempts to outright harmful portrayals relying on stereotypes and dangerous misconceptions, most portrayals of disability in media have not been favorable.
The last few decades have seen significant progress in the representation of many groups, disability communities being one of them. Even so, problems still exist. However, is the new Apple TV+ streaming film, CODA, one of them? Let’s look at the movie and examine how members of the Deaf community are feeling to see what worked and what didn’t.
What is ‘CODA’ and what does the title mean?
CODA is a 2021 drama film based on the 2014 French movie, La Famille Bélier. It follows the Rossi family, owners of a fishing business in small-town Massachusetts. The entire family is deaf save for daughter Ruby, who helps her parents and older brother communicate with others in town.
After Ruby discovers her talent at singing, she is conflicted about whether she should pursue her passion by going to college or staying with her family and help run their business full time after graduating high school.
The title of CODA has a double meaning. Concerning deafness, a CODA is a “child of deaf adult,” meaning someone raised by a deaf parent or parents. Most often, a CODA will be a hearing person, just like in the film, making the CODA community a distinct group with their own related experiences living with and navigating the world with their deaf relatives.
With music, a coda is the ending measure or section of a song. Considering how much of the movie is focused on music, it makes sense that the title would relate to it. Beyond that, though, titling the film after a song’s coda also ties it back to the major themes of the movie, with Ruby’s coming-of-age and going off to college bringing an end to this chapter of her life like the coda of a song.
‘CODA’ has had a pretty good reception
After its premiere at Sundance, CODA was met with immediate praise and won several awards. Apple’s contract for acquiring the streaming rights two days after its premiere totaled $25 million, a record for the festival and a major achievement for its creators. Upon its wider release, similar praise followed critics and audiences alike, making it one of the most successful indie films in Sundance history.
Overall, the Deaf community seemed to share much of the praise, particularly for its casting. Unlike the vast majority of movies and TV shows in the past, the three main deaf characters of the film are played by deaf actors. While that doesn’t sound like much, challenge yourself to think of even one instance of this in a wide-release movie of the past and see just how uncommon this kind of authenticity in casting really is.
As Oscar-winning actor Marlee Matlin, who plays the role of Jackie in the film, said to The Hollywood Reporter, “To have a hearing actor put on a deaf character as if it was a costume — we’ve moved beyond that point now.”
Certain aspects of the film still received criticism
While most can agree that having the movie made was a fantastic achievement, some still find fault in some of the details related to the Deaf and CODA experience portrayed in the film. USA Today quotes author and sensitive reader Jenna Beacom in their article, who was particularly annoyed by some of the things she saw.
Beacom, who is a member of the Deaf community herself and the mother to a singer like in the movie, was highly critical of the main conflict in the movie, questioning why the movie portrayed its deaf characters as being unable to appreciate music. As she explains, many deaf people can enjoy music in ways that hearing people do not, herself being an example. Additionally, she pointed out that Ruby’s help as an interpreter for her family wouldn’t be quite as critical as the film shows, as ADA regulations would require that professional interpreters be available to assist the Rossis on the job.
Despite the faults, though, Beacom was still “thrilled” to have a movie like CODA at all. Her criticism makes a point that acknowledging something’s faults doesn’t mean it can’t still have merit. With any luck, CODA will help open the door for future stories by and about members of the Deaf community that can be even better.