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Marlee Matlin no doubt had a busy Friday morning here in Park City, where she’s serving on the U.S. Dramatic Competition jury for this year’s Sundance Film Festival. However, she did manage to sneak in a few minutes of an oh-so-common pastime: scrolling on social media. What she saw left her fuming.
“I was looking on my Facebook page and I happened to see a mother of a friend of mine, a young girl who’s deaf,” detailed Matlin while seated opposite fest participants Randall Park, Zackary Drucker and Alethea Arnaquq-Bari on the panel The Big Conversation: Complicating Representation at Main Street’s Filmmaker Lodge. “She was involved in a show called Kidz Bop. Savannah’s her name, and she was very excited. This is the first time that you’ve seen a deaf girl on that show, and I was so jazzed for her.”
The 12-year-old youngster, introduced as Savvy, was the subject of a People magazine story published just last month when it was announced that she was joining the Kidz Bop family by being booked to “appear in a slate of picture-in-picture content, where she’ll appear in the corner of music videos, using ASL to perform hit songs like ‘Meet Me At Our Spot.'”
“As a Kidz Bop Kid, I feel proud to be able to make a difference in the lives of deaf children by sharing my passion for music with them,” Savvy told the mag. “My goal is to show them how beautiful music is, regardless of whether or not you can hear it. You just have to feel it in your heart.”
Matlin went on to say that the mother asked her to relay behind-the-scenes drama that has unfolded. She claimed all the Kidz Bop kids had been booked to go on a tour but that Savannah was not asked to join. [Not all Kidz Bop kids go on tour as some are video/production talent.] According to her mother, “The producers were using her exclusively for promoting the tour …because they weren’t going to let her on the tour because they said the interpreter was too expensive,” claimed Matlin from her exchange. “What do you mean too expensive? Too expensive to pay for the interpreter. Too expensive to give her access. That’s fucking ridiculous.”
The Hollywood Reporter reached out to Kidz Bop for comment and did not hear back as of press time. However, on Monday, Savannah and her family posted a statement on Instagram refuting the claims and saying how “delighted” they are to be a part of the Kidz Bop family “and make history as a deaf family.” They also cleared up the distinctions of Kidz Bop talent between divisions like Tour Kidz and video/production Kidz. Savannah is in the latter group.
“Kidz Bop already provides full accessibility for us. We have an interpreter on site, and DASL, Director of ASL, is also available. In the videos, there are captions for you all to enjoy and ASL translation. As the media industry continues to make progress behind the scenes, we will continue to emphasize the importance of accessibility for the Deaf community such as ASL and captioning,” the family states, adding that they are flying to L.A. next week for more videos.
Matlin, who added that she was “pissed” about the situation, made a point of saying that it was the first time she was addressing it publicly and she was hoping that “the news wires” picked up the story to report how this young girl was being “deprived of her dream and to do something that she loves and she’s so good at it.”
Matlin said it was one example of an all-too-common occurrence. She used the anecdote as a way of launching into a recent story from her own career as she, too, was deprived of a gig because of access to an interpreter, this coming from an Oscar-winning actress and someone who starred in last year’s best picture Oscar winner, CODA.
She explained that she was offered a four-episode arc on a television show playing a deaf judge. “It wasn’t written for a deaf actor,” she noted, adding that she did three to four weeks of research for the part, trying to find a real-life example of a deaf judge. She had a meeting with the executive producer to talk over the part. During the chat, she asked how they planned to envision the courtroom with the use of an interpreter, a necessity to play such a character.
It wasn’t something the show had considered, she said. “He said, ‘Well, let me get back to you,'” she continued. “And a half an hour later, he told my agent that the part was taken off the table. Having said this, there’s still a lack of education out there.”
By the way, she concluded, “That show was canceled. Karma.”
The exclamation point on the end of the story elicited laughter and applause from the capacity crowd inside the Filmmaker Lodge. Per the official Sundance blurb, the panel was designed to “provide a chance for successful creators impacted by current (and sometimes false or performative) interest in diversity in Hollywood to discuss the struggles, boons, doubts and responsibilities of balancing more grassroots, edgy artistic spaces.”
Bird Runningwater had been booked to moderate but dropped out after “coming down with something,” per his replacement Adam Piron, Sundance’s Indigenous Program director. Piron led an insightful discussion that allowed each panelist to share their experience in navigating Hollywood, their perspective on the current state of inclusion and where the industry is headed.
For Park, here with his directorial debut Shortcomings, he pointed out that a single story can’t represent an entire community. “The answer to that is just a lot more stories and a lot more stories from different perspectives within a community created by people from that community,” he said, adding that way, “You get more perspectives and you don’t have that pressure of having to represent everybody.”
Even with the swell of projects happening in Hollywood, Park noted that he feels the cap is coming.
For her part, Drucker, who is here as a co-director of the trans sex worker documentary The Stroll, explained Hollywood’s complicated history with trans content. As an example, she recently rewatched the Felicity Huffman-starrer Transamerica from 2005. “At the time, we thought it was very empathetic towards the trans experience, and to watch it today, it’s very jarring.”
Drucker then explained that she was around for the “trans tipping point” that came in 2014 thanks to the arrival of the Emmy Award winning Transparent. “I worked as a producer for six years on Transparent and helped kind of shepherd that moment of trans folks becoming visible,” she continued. With that, there was a “direct and intentional” effort to create more diverse and robust renderings of trans life and because of that, “Trans sex workers were really taken out of the conversation.”
It’s not something that can be ignored, Drucker said, because “anybody who’s been in trans life since that era has a relationship to sex work,” and that includes notable names. “So many trans actors in Hollywood even have relationships to sex work that they don’t talk about” because of the pejorative lens focused on it.
With her Sundance selection, as well as the fellow fest title Kokomo City about four Black trans sex workers — a film that Lena Waithe recently boarded as an executive producer — Drucker was feeling hopeful. “We’re at a point with representation where we are embracing complexity,” she said, nailing the title of the conversation. “We are allowing a more dimensional approach to understanding marginalized people.”
Monday, Jan. 23, 6:13 p.m.: Updated to include an Instagram post from Savannah featuring a family statement about her role with Kidz Bop and the continued positive relationship.
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