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CinemAbility

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  • Genre: Program

Among the hundreds of stories of Thomas Edison's monumental douchebaggery -- publicly electrocuting an elephant, stealing Voyage dans la Lune from Georges Méliès -- one little-known example is his silent film The Fake Beggar, which concerned a man who pretended to be crippled and preyed on the sympathy of kindly people. It was possibly the first filmed portrayal of disabled people. Released in 1897, it spread and cemented a terrible stereotype about the disabled that endured for decades. Thirty years later, Freaks director Tod Browning shot a silent film called The Unknown, in which Lon Chaney plays a knife-throwing circus performer who falls madly in love with Joan Crawford -- a woman with a crushing fear of men's arms. It's unpleasant! Chaney's performance, during which his arms were severely constrained behind his torso, was one of many transformations he endured for Browning's films. But Browning had real empathy for disabled people and often employed actors with real disabilities for his films. Jenni Gold's documentary CinemAbility is a supercut of performances by or about disabled people spanning the dawn of cinema to Deadwood. Clips are intercut with interviews with performers -- some of whom, like Gary Sinise, portrayed disabled characters, but most of whom have real disabilities. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and RJ Mitte, who played Walter Jr., talk about the importance of reflecting the real world in casting decisions, and the Farrelly brothers' recurring casts include several disabled people. Sometimes academically clinical, and including infomercial-like narration by Jane Seymour, the film has a bright core of real emotion stoked by the inspiring ambition of Chris Burke and the intense dislike for Million Dollar Baby among the quadriplegic community.

Chris Packham

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