Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts vs. Abigail Breslin

Oscar-nominated Little Miss Sunshine herself, Abigail Breslin, is set to play Helen Keller on Broadway. Not everyone's a happy camper.

Sharon Jensen, exec director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, has this to say: “We do not think it’s O.K. for reputable producers to cast this lead role without seriously considering an actress from our community. I understand how difficult it is to capitalize a new production on Broadway, but that to me is not the issue. There are other, larger human and artistic issues at stake here.”

The media is overhyping this statement, suggesting that Deaf and Blind advocacy groups are upset by this casting choice. Really, Sharon Jensen just needs a Xanax. If casting a hearing and seeing child actor in a play is the biggest human issue happening amongst people with disabilities, we're living in a pretty rad world.

People can be so sensitive about casting. I remember when Zhang Ziyi (world-famous Chinese starlet) was cast in "Memoirs of a Geisha" and there was a huge uproar over her casting. China banned the film, calling Ziyi "an embarassment to China" for playing a Japanese Geisha girl. Do people not understand the definition of "acting"? Should Ted Bundy be cast in any role involving a serial killer? Should royalty be cast in Disney productions? Do gays have to play gay roles? Who cares. The whole point of acting is to find a kernel of truth in playing a character other than yourself. Transformation. Somehow, that got lost in the mix.

I remember playing Helen Keller on stage. It was one of my favorite performance memories, and the role and courage of Helen Keller inspired me to tempt to learn American Sign Language, with which I thought about being an ASL interpreter. The role had a strong impact on my life, you don't have to be blind or deaf to be inspired by this brave woman's journey.

I agree that it's unfortunate that certain minorities and the disabled community don't get more work in Hollywood or on Broadway. This has been an issue from the beginning affecting countless groups of people. It is not an inclusive industry and stereotypical depictions abound. Aside from the amazing Marlee Matlin, few of us can name a slew of deaf or blind actors.

While I encourage all minorities and peoples of every background and walk of life to share their experience with the world and pursue their dreams, I highly doubt a statement like this made after-the-fact makes much difference. I am reminded of Marlon Brando's then-wife Sacheen Littlefeather (an Apache Indian and president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Comittee) accepting rejecting his Oscar for "The Godfather" at the Academy Awards as a statement of opposition to Hollywood's exclusionary casting of Native American actors. She was promptly booed off the stage, and decades later I can't recall many Native Americans in film since. This doesn't mean minorities and actors with disabilities should cease the fight for recognition and casting. Change never occurs without opportunities for raising awareness and demanding your voice be heard. Hollywood may be a fast town, but it's slow in fundamental areas.

While I respect the idealism displayed here, I disagree with the idea that deaf or blind actors should be cast in the role of Helen Keller as much as I see no point in any actor being boxed in for any reason. There is much we can all learn from this character, regardless of whose eyes she is shown to us through. I also disagree on this level of attention being brought to a matter that pales in comparison to the inequalities in the educational system for the deaf and blind or the numerous health and social issues regarding minorities and disabled individuals face on a daily basis. Let's get the focus back on the real "larger human issues" at stake, not the sideshow diversions.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"This is it."

For once, I am not going to leave a movie review. But rather, scattered thoughts, and "This Is It" conjures many.

If it's a review you want, Roger Ebert will give it to you as only he can:

I really don't have much to say. Perhaps I never did, yet I felt some responsibility to defend Michael against talk that will never cease. His work speaks for itself, his humanitarian efforts stand alone, and this film says the rest. I pondered many of the questions Ebert did, yet I know how sensational the media has always been, and I know the results of the autopsy which confirm that most of the talk is just that. The film raises questions about how someone can be heavily drugged and do even a fraction of any of that. It's safe to say the media embellished quite a bit, as usual, though Michael did have a documented history of painkiller addiction in his past. The intense concentration and ability to focus on every little detail is a Michael Jackson trademark, and only possible with him at the helm, where he remained during his rehearsals.

I had the great fortune of sitting next to a woman who had nothing but backhanded comments throughout the entire film. The irony is that she paid money to see it. That says a lot. Sometimes people don't get it or "claim" not to. Instead of "This Is It", they ask "What Is It?" In a way, I think the title is brilliant, it is what it is. Not everything in this world can be explained or needs to be dissected into oblivion. If you don't get what the big deal is with Michael Jackson by now - who he was, why people cared, what he accomplished... you never will, and no explaining will suffice. Genius on that level comes around once in a lifetime, and is always misunderstood and undervalued until it's gone, and even then it flies so high above the radar most people miss everything. I'm proud to be one of the legions of folks touched by this man and his work, and I get it. I can truly say with complete honesty that without Michael Jackson, I would not be the person or artist I am today. He inspired something in me that continues to burn, much like millions of creative people around the world.

There was so much love and positivity, hope and inspiration in this film that if you failed to receive that, you are officially "Not It". The more light a person has inside with which to shine, the more others feel dimmed and have to charge up their destructive tendencies, yet it isn't enough to quell their appetite or turn them into better people. We all have choices to make and it is our responsibility to chose wisely, and I chose to be a positive force in the world and an artist that makes a difference, partially thanks to a person who needs no introduction.

I must say, in all of my movie-going experiences, I've never seen people spontaneously whip out lighters and wave their hands in the air. There were random fedora-wearing viewers and sparkled out audience members, and an audience sprinkled with every age group and color. One could expect nothing less. If a small conservative town can even get it, there is hope for us all to just get along, by golly.

I don't think Michael would have wanted this film released as he was too much of a perfectionist to want an audience to see an incomplete product, yet it's all we have for his last show and it's enough. I'm grateful this film was made, it answers a lot of questions and gives the fans one last peek at a man so hard to say goodbye to.

Michael was truly It, and It will be sorely missed.