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Deaf community responds to 'CODA': What the movie gets right and misses

Troy Kotsur became the second deaf actor in history to win an Academy Award for his role in 'CODA.'
/ Source: TODAY

When Troy Kotsur accepted his Academy Award for best supporting actor for his performance in "CODA" he became only the second deaf actor to win an Oscar — the first was his "CODA" co-star Marlee Matlin who won in 1986 for "Children of a Lesser God." In his speech he thanked deaf theater for helping him perfect his skills, screenwriter Siân Heder — and even joked he wanted to teach President Joe Biden dirty sign language. Then his speech turned personal.

“My dad he was the best signer in our family. But he was in a car accident and he became paralyzed from the neck down. And he no longer was able to sign. Dad, I learned so much from you. I’ll always love you," he said. "You are my hero."

After that touching moment he shared his historic win with those who helped him succeed.

“This is dedicated to the deaf community, the CODA community and the disabled community," he said. This is our moment.”

"CODA," released on on Apple TV+ last year, has certainly sparked conversations in the deaf community. The film focuses on Ruby, a child of deaf adults, and her relationship with her parents and brother, all of whom are deaf. The movie also won Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay for Heder's work. Audiences also loved the movie and many appreciate that deaf actors play all the deaf characters, something that doesn’t occur as much as hearing people might believe.

“It’s absolutely fantastic that three main deaf roles are played by deaf actors. Marlee Matlin made that happen — when told that Frank and Leo (the husband and son) were going to be played by hearing actors, she insisted on deaf actors or she’d walk — and she deserves so much credit for that,” Jenna Fischtrom Beacom, 50, a deaf activist and writer in Columbus, Ohio, told TODAY via email. “Much of the interaction between the deaf actors is right on. I loved when Jackie (Marlee Matlin’s character) gets the attention of her husband and son at the concert by whapping them on the shoulder — that whole thing read as authentic and familiar to me in a way.”

Having deaf actors makes some of the communication seem more natural, too.

“All three deaf characters are played by three actually deaf people,” Rikki Poynter, a 30-year-old YouTuber, writer and accessibility expert, told TODAY via email. “And when you get that right, the ASL is right.”

The deaf actors also used their own experiences in their roles, which added richness in some scenes.

“There were many incidental, probably unscripted moments that were authentic because the deaf roles were all filled with deaf characters, and the actors also provided feedback re: their own experiences,” Fischtrom Beacom said.

One scene that felt accurate to Poynter involves the family listening to “loud bass music, showing that one of the ways we enjoy music is through vibrations.” And, she appreciates how the movie tackles sex and disability in a way that most movies and TV shows don’t.

“Sex is such a taboo topic in general, but seems to be especially more so when it comes to disabled people,” she said. “I’m glad they did away with that ‘disabled people can’t be sexual or desirable’ nonsense.”

While the movie did some things well, there were moments that didn’t feel as realistic. Fischtrom Beacom thought that the main character Ruby used sign language like a “beginner” and some of the signing even among the deaf characters felt off.

“It was very clear that the dialogue was written by a hearing person. ASL and English are very different languages, with not only distinct syntax, grammar, etc., but also their own idioms,” she said. “There is overlap, and anything can be interpreted from one language to another but many phrases just don’t ‘work’ well when they’re supposed to be coming from culturally deaf-ASL users.”

And, the movie focuses on a plot point that might feel overdone to some.

“The ‘deaf people can’t enjoy music,’ stereotype that most music-and-losing hearing movies do,” Poynter said. “It’s so tiring.”

Poynter reviewed "CODA" for her YouTube channel, where she often reviews movies and discusses disability and accessibility, including her efforts to improve closed captioning. Even though the movie feels like inspiration porn, she believes it’s worth seeing.

“It’s not a perfect movie (is any movie though?) but I love Daniel (Durant) and Troy (Kotsur) especially and I grew up watching Marlee in things,” she said.

“CODA” has highlighted the need for better representation of deaf people and their stories and Fischtrom Beacom hopes that there’s room for more deaf writers, producers, actors and show runners.

“While actors are a huge part of improving deaf representation, they are far from the only part,” Fischtrom Beacom. “The writing in some ways is the most important thing; the decisions about what story is told and how to tell it.”

Being able to tell accurate stories about deaf people allows hearing people to develop a better understanding of deaf culture. Fischtrom Beacom shared an example: Most hearing people believe that all deaf people can lip-read and can do it from far away, in bad lighting or during a fast conversation, which is “utterly unrealistic.”

“There is a central conundrum that any deaf show or movie needs to appeal to hearing people to find real success, but hearing people generally know so little about deafness that what appeals is often sensationalistic or outside the deaf experience,” Fischtrom Beacom said. “I see some evidence that each success leads to something a little better.”

More accurate stories about deaf people can also have a positive impact on deaf people, hoping for narratives that reflect their experience. Fischtrom Beacom recently finished a young adult novel about a “newly deaf girl figuring out her deaf identity” with a magical and adventurous backdrop based a little on her own experience becoming newly deaf as a teen. And Poynter continues sharing on YouTube and streaming on Twitch.

“I grew up knowing next to nothing about deaf people, growing up alone and being the only deaf person I knew,” Poynter said. “Not being able to see people like me really had me feeling isolated. That’s why I made a YouTube channel 10+ years ago so mainstreamed deaf kids like me have someone they could see and relate to in some way,” she said. “It isn’t fun feeling like you’re some kind of ‘other’ when nobody else around you is like you.”Related: