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[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Me Before You and Million Dollar Baby.]
Warner Bros. and MGM’s new drama Me Before You, like the 2012 best-seller on which it’s based, is a romantic tearjerker. But among members of the disabled community, the film is eliciting passionate emotions of a very different kind.
In the film, Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) plays Louisa, a young woman hired by a wealthy family to serve as caregiver for their adult son Will (The Hunger Games’ Sam Claflin), who sustained a severe spinal cord injury and is now a quadriplegic. Over the course of six months, Louisa’s quirky charm and bubbly personality gradually thaw the embittered Will, and the two eventually fall in love.
Claflin’s casting has raised objections for being another instance of an able-bodied actor portraying a disabled character — a phenomenon that some have taken to wryly calling “cripface.” But Me Before You’s storyline has added another layer of controversy: Will has decided to seek assisted suicide and, despite the attempts of his mother and Louisa to dissuade him, remains resolute in his goal. The film ends with Louisa following Will’s last wishes for her, using the money he left her to travel and, as the movie’s tagline states, to “live boldly.” A small but vocal segment of the public are protesting the movie on Twitter with the hashtag #MeBeforeEuthanasia.
“The message of this movie is that it’s better for this person to die in order to be of service to her than for him to live,” says actor Zack Weinstein, who suffered a spinal cord injury similar to Will’s in 2005 and now is a quadriplegic. “Are you using [Will’s disability] to be emotionally manipulative? That has its place, but it’s very difficult to watch the facts of my life being used as the vehicle for that.” Adds actor Grant Albrecht, a stage and television veteran (CSI: NY, ER) whose spinal myelopathy is a progressive condition that is gradually taking away his ability to walk: “To romanticize cowardice is indeed perpetuating a stereotype for the sake of forsaking actual people with disabilities who are struggling to maintain their sanity and livelihood and aren’t given opportunities in Hollywood.”
Weinstein and Albrecht’s agent Gail Williamson, who oversees a roster of about 120 actors with disabilities in the Diversity Department of boutique agency KMR & Associates, agrees that Me Before You’s portrayal of the disabled experience is troubling. “Usually all I worry about is why they didn’t cast someone in a wheelchair, but this is a much bigger issue,” says Williamson, who saw the movie on opening night. “The film is beautiful and the quirky love story is adorable, and I believe the public can be drawn in and not even realize the message the film is giving. How many people who see this film will leave with a new perception that people with spinal cord injuries are not of value?”
Filmmaker Jenni Gold, who directed the 2013 documentary CinemAbility and uses a wheelchair because of muscular dystrophy, says that Hollywood all too often depicts severe physical impairment as the ultimate tragedy. “Why always show disability as the worst thing? In Million Dollar Baby, you had a character who is a boxer, who fights and overcomes her lack of money and her awful family, but the one thing that is unsurmountable is a physical disability to the point that she is helped to kill herself,” Gold says. “What does that do to the girl who is on top of the pyramid on Friday night at a pep rally and falls and breaks her back? Does it help her to get on to be the most productive she can be? To be a part of society?”
Weinstein, who guest starred on Glee and now is a series regular on YouTube Red’s Sing It, says that as an artist he respects the right of author and screenwriter Jojo Moyes to tell a story of her choosing, and in fact he is not opposed to assisted suicide in certain situations. “What rubs me the wrong way as an actor and as somebody with a disability living in the real world is not that this story is being told,” Weinstein says. “It’s that so frequently this is the only story of disability that is told.”
Moyes has said that her novel was inspired by a news story about an injured rugby player who chose to end his life with the help of Dignitas, the real-life Swiss-based assisted-dying organization that is featured in Me Before You. “What I felt about creating a story like this is you have one man whose decision you might not agree with… but it would be very hard once you know who he is to judge him for the decision that he makes,” she has said in response to the criticism. “We’re a very judgmental society and you never know really what goes on in someone’s mind or what experiences they’ve had to make that decision.”
Comedy writer Janis Hirsch, who uses walking aids as a result of a childhood battle with polio, counters that involving a person with disability makes a difference when it comes to creating a story. “If you have a real disabled person, things change,” she says, adding that when she wrote for the Fox comedy Brothers, having her and star Daryl “Chill” Mitchell (who was paralyzed in a 2001 accident) on set gave the show the ability to make certain jokes. “You get to go to somebody and go, ‘Would you do this or this?’ You get to draw on their lives.”
Actor and BMX pro athlete Kurt Yaeger, whose left leg was amputated following a motorcycle crash, urges producers and studios to seek the input of those living with disability. “Bring someone like me in to consult, completely off the record, so that they can ask questions freely without being judged,” says Yaeger, a member of SAG-AFTRA’s Performers with Disabilities committee who recurred on Sons of Anarchy and will be a series regular on Cinemax’s upcoming Quarry. “Hollywood shouldn’t take this criticism as a negative slap in the face. They should see [diverse and accurate stories about disability] as a void where nothing exists, and they can be the first ones to do it and reap the gold dust of success.”
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