When Kelli McNeil-Yellen penned the script of “Daruma” nearly 15 years ago, she had no inkling of just how groundbreaking it was going to be. “Daruma” is believed to be the first-ever film to have two disabled lead actors.
How is that possible in 2023? Hollywood hasn’t necessarily shied away from including disabled characters in its media — disabled characters are found in every genre of film, from horror to comedy. But the actors cast in these roles are almost always non-disabled, a problem called inauthentic casting.
In the major box office success “Bones and All,” released just last year, CGI was used to make Chloё Sevigny’s character, Maren’s mother, appear as a bilateral amputee. And in 2019, the film “Come As You Are” cast three non-disabled leads in place of a legally blind man, a wheelchair user with a congenital defect and a paralyzed man.
Why would films choose to depict stories involving disability without casting disabled actors? One rationale used to justify inauthentic casting is the preference towards someone with an established name in the industry. But Hollywood’s unwillingness to make space for disabled actors has set off a persistent quandary. If roles aren’t given to disabled actors in the first place, it’s impossible for them to make a name for themselves.
Another commonly held belief is that it is harder to work with disabled actors, who may require accommodations on set. While this type of discrimination is quite literally illegal, it seems to be not a coincidence that the wide majority of disabled character roles are cast inauthentically. The most recent study looking at these rates across media representations of disability was done by the Ruderman Family Foundation in 2018. It found that on streaming services, 80% of disabled characters are played by non-disabled actors.
In the essay “Rhetorical Sovereignty: What Do American Indians Want from Writing?” Scott Lyons coins the term rhetorical imperialism. His definition involves pieces of media that put out representations of various groups of people using only their stereotyped knowledge of the culture they are trying to capture. Lyons’ musings run parallel to the cry of disability activists: ‘Nothing about us without us.’
Disabled actors can add nuance to stories told based on their lived experiences and correct any inaccuracies in scripted portrayals. Christine Bruno, co-chair of the Tri-Union Inclusion in the Arts & Media of People With Disabilities (I AM PWD), commented on the issue of inauthentic casting, stating: “There is no substitute for the lived experience of disability… Disabled actors bring with them a lifetime of unique experiences that allow them to present authentic, nuanced portrayals that add not only to the rich, diverse fabric of our country, but create a greater understanding about the society in which we live.”
To Kelli McNeil-Yellen, the screenwriter and producer of “Daruma,” she didn’t know how the story about two friends on a road trip, one who is a wheelchair user and the other a double amputee, could be told if not authentically cast. “I mean, it absolutely loses its significance.”
Initially, her and her husband, Director Alexander Yellen, were turned down by everyone, “[teams] who said ‘great idea for a script, great idea for a film, but… who are you going to cast’ or, ‘are you going to get some kind of name attached?’”
Their response, McNeil-Yellen said, was that they firmly wanted to cast it with two authentically cast leads. “And basically everyone said that [it] couldn’t be done.” It was pegged as “impossible” due to perceived technical practicalities of working with disabled actors and foresight of getting funding without big names attached to the picture.
“So that’s why,” McNeil-Yellen added, “we had to go ahead and take the route of doing this on our own.”
“Daruma” stars actors Tobias Forest, a wheelchair user, and double amputee John W. Lawson. By authentically casting, it carves out a space for disabled actors. And that’s not the only way the indie film is forging paths.
The story of “Daruma” is multilayered. It’s a story of friendship, of fatherhood, of forgiveness, of self-discovery. It’s not a story about disability.
One of the most resounding comments on the film they’ve gotten, McNeil-Yellen said, is that “by about 10, 15 minutes into the film. You don’t even notice that you’re looking at two disabled actors at that point… You don’t pay attention to it.”
It’s important that disabled actors are cast in all types of movies, not just ones that deal with disability as a subject, just as Black actors deserve to be cast in films that aren’t only about race, queer actors in films not only about queerness and so forth.
When it premiered at the Dances with Films Festival in Hollywood on June 4th, the film sold out both of its showings. “There is an interest and there is an appetite for this content. This is an extremely underserved demographic.” While underserved, the disabled community is hardly a minority with one in four Americans having a disability that affects major life activities.
As Deborah Calla, Co-CEO and Executive Producer of the Media Access Awards summed up: “We need more ‘Darumas.’”
“Daruma” will show at the Dances with Films Festival in New York on Dec. 1, and is expected to be available to the public in spring 2024.