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Avatar: Will the Oscars Overlook Disability?

March 7 2010 | by

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Just in time for the 82nd Annual Academy Awards, comes an article in Huffington Post about Avatar and the lack of chatter around disability.

Despite all the excitement from people with disabilities last year at Comic Con, where director James Cameron unveiled Avatar footage for the first time, disability never emerged as a central theme in this sci-fi movie.

In Avatar, Corporal Jake Sully is a former Marine who lost the use of his legs while on duty. Sully, played by Sam Worthington, is recruited for a mission to the planet of Pandora where technology gives his mind access to a cloned body of one of the local humanoid aliens, the Na’vi.

The 3-D epic has been nominated for nine Academy awards, including Best Picture. If Cameron does win an Oscar, he should start a much needed public conversation on disabilities, writes HuffPo writer Anna Mail Bertelsen.

There has been very little chatter [about Avatar] — beyond the blogs targeting the disabled population. As a society, we have a de facto “don’t ask, don’t tell” disability policy. As children we are taught that it is impolite to look at, ask questions or acknowledge a person’s disability for fear we will hurt their feelings or make them feel uncomfortable. So, we don’t talk or look — at all. That silence and avoidance is worse than any hurt feelings or discomfort; it sidelines people with disabilities from social, economic and artistic opportunities.

I have another theory to add to Bertelsen’s — one that has been mirrored by many people in the disability community. I do not think Avatar confronts the issue of disability in a genuine way. Jake Sully is given an opportunity to leave his body at the beginning of the movie, which negates him from having to deal with his disability and the issues that arise from it.

A weak plot, coupled with fantastical 3-D graphics, were distractions. They failed to deliver the human story of a man struggling with the loss of his legs. Sully never went back home to deal with his disability, so viewers were spared what would probably have been a difficult yet remarkable life for Sully. In fact, many paraplegics gave Avatar mixed reviews.

From comic books to TV to blockbuster films, there are lots of characters with disabilities. What matters is how the medium chooses to portray their lives, to show how a disability can both humble and strengthen them. How it changes a family forever. How they overcome. Two great examples: Life Goes On, with Corky Thatcher played by Chris Burke, who had Down syndrome. And My Left Foot is an outstanding movie about a man with cerebral palsy, played by Daniel Day-Lewis.

Tonight we will see if Cameron and his crew have learned anything from Jake Sully. I don’t hold my breath, but I also don’t think Cameron ever wanted a movie about a disability to be his opus. Someone out there does, and I hope he or she surfaces soon. The disability community is waiting.

UPDATE: “Avatar” won only three trophies, all in technical categories. It won for visual effects for Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum, Richard Baneham and Andrew R. Jones. Art direction went to Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg and set decorator Kim Sinclair for the James Cameron blockbuster, which also won cinematography for Mauro Fiore.

  • Ashton

    omg jake is such a beautiful creature (as an avatar)!!! i love this movie and i hope to get if for my birhtday wich is cumin soon!!!

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