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OPINION By Lennard J. Davis. Lennard J. Davis teaches English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is also professor of Disability and Human Development at UIC's School of Applied Health Sciences

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Why 'Million Dollar Baby' infuriates the disabled


February 2 2005

Although Clint Eastwood's film "Million Dollar Baby" continues to garner praise and awards -- a Director's Guild Award for Eastwood, seven Oscar nominations, as well as best actress and director for the Golden Globes -- a mounting furor around the film accompanies these kudos.

In Chicago last week, Not Dead Yet, a group of people with disabilities, assembled at night to protest what they say is the anti-disability stance of the film. A demonstration also was held in Berkeley, Calif., and more are planned in other cities. How can there be such a wide gap between the critics and the disability activists' point of view?

(Note to readers: This story reveals a key plot twist in "Million Dollar Baby.")

The film tells us the story of a poor but feisty young woman, Maggie (Hilary Swank), who wants Frankie (Clint Eastwood) to train her to be a boxer. Initially he refuses, but when he gives in, she becomes an unbeatable opponent in the ring -- until she breaks her neck and becomes a quadriplegic. At that point, the film throws a left hook and switches from a Rocky-themed plot to a disability tragedy. When Maggie loses a leg to bedsores, she gives up her wish to live and begs to be euthanized by Frankie. And with a little soul searching, he agrees.

Many people with disabilities, including the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, a national advocacy group with 13,000 members, see the film as one that uncritically advocates euthanasia for quadriplegics. There are no scenes in which anyone at the hospital tries to deal with Maggie's depression or offers her counseling or at the least an anti-depressant. And the feisty girl who would stop at nothing to fight in the ring, who after the accident musters the energy to tell her hillbilly family to bugger off, strangely changes character and becomes someone who gives up her ghost rather quickly -- even refusing Eastwood's offer of sending her to college (his one attempt to affect her despair).

Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that, "The characters in movies do not always do what we would do. That is their right. It is our right to disagree with them." He added, "What kind of movies would there be if everyone in them had to do what we thought they should do?" Ebert's right that freedom of expression and creative license are valuable things and every right-minded person should fight to preserve this right. But he's wrong if he thinks that films don't have a powerful influence on how we think about ourselves and the world.

Not an impartial artist

In this story, it is important to know that Eastwood isn't just any impartial artist in the area of disability. In fact, he has actively testified before the House Judiciary Committee against the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Eastwood is the owner of the Mission Ranch Inn in Carmel, Calif. A patron with disabilities had sued under the ADA claiming that the hotel restrooms were inaccessible and the only accessible guest room was more than double the price of other rooms in the hotel. Eastwood was cited for some of these violations, although the major claims in the case were dismissed.

Angered by the ruling, Eastwood went to Congress to lobby for a bill that would have substantially weakened the ADA by requiring a 90-day notification of violations. At that time, Eastwood said that the ADA amounted to "a form of extortion."

Although Eastwood didn't write the script, he did select it, act in it, direct and co-produce it. Is it surprising that "Million Dollar Baby" isn't particularly sympathetic to the views of people with disabilities? If a film were obviously anti-gay, or anti-women or anti-abortion -- would all the film critics rally around it and tell us what a great film it was?

So why do so many critics like this film? Could it be because they actually have very little knowledge or contact with people with disabilities, deaf people, blind people, quadriplegics -- except through the media? Many people, critics included, know very little about them or their issues. While it is rare to find a college student who isn't well versed in race, class, gender and sexuality -- few if any know about their fellow Americans with disabilities.

Ironically, one of the ways that many people do actually know about this group is through movies. Think of all the films that have been made about people with disabilities: "The Miracle Worker," "Johnny Belinda," "My Left Foot," "Children of a Lesser God," "Rain Man," "Elephant Man," "A Beautiful Mind" and many more. And this year's crop are close to garnering awards -- "Ray," "Aviator," "The Sea Inside" and "Million Dollar Baby." Come to think of it, if you want to be nominated for an award, you might just want to do a disability movie.

These films generally show us people with disabilities triumphing over their "handicap" or living the tragedy of the disease. Great themes for an uplifting feel-good film or a tearjerker. These films, for the most part, are made by abled people who are using the issue of disability to rally the forces of hope and pity. People with disabilities in film tend to be lionized or thrown to the lions. But they almost never are made or written by people with disabilities -- so the actual life experience of people who have walked the walk, tapped the cane, or wheeled the chair, isn't really reflected in many of these works.

F.X. Toole, who wrote the story on which "Million Dollar Baby" was based, had a heart condition throughout his life, his son said, and "had strong feelings about not wanting to live in a reduced state." Like most people, Toole had a vision and a fear of life with a disability, but he didn't have direct experience.

So-called normal people are fascinated and haunted by the person with a disability, probably because, unlike any other identity, one can go from being a normal to a quadriplegic in a matter of seconds. Most white people aren't going to become black in their lifetimes, and most men (with a few exceptions) aren't going to become women in the near future -- but the shaky and uncertain position of being normal can easily convert by a simple medical report into a state of being disabled overnight. That's why most film viewers are so quick to either idolize or pity the disabled person (almost always played by a normal actor), and are so quick to acknowledge euthanasia as a quick fix to the as-yet unfixable condition of quadriplegia.

Inaccuracies portrayed

One of the areas of distress to people with disabilities is that "Million Dollar Baby" is so inaccurate and unnuanced about life with quadriplegia, unlike the Spanish-language film "The Sea Inside," also nominated for an Academy Award and also about euthanasia.

For example, since 1990 there are laws that allow patients to refuse treatment. A quadriplegic on a respirator could simply ask to be disconnected from the device. Doctors would have done so and administered a sedative so the person could die peacefully. Instead of allowing that rather benign solution, screenwriter Eastwood went with the more outre plot device of having the character illegally enter the hospital, disconnect the device and inject her with adrenalin, a far more jolting ending than most hospitals would have provided.

And if he had bothered to talk with anyone who had a disability, he would have found out that the kind of bed sores that require amputations would not have arisen in an upscale nursing home, and certainly not that early in her stay. But Eastwood wasn't interested in reality, like other normal filmmakers who make movies about the disabled, they are dealing in the grand myths and legends that surround the idea of disability rather than the reality of living with a disability.

It is true that "Million Dollar Baby" is only a film, but when it comes time for many people to make health decisions about themselves or a loved one's future, what experience or knowledge will they fall back on? Few people have personal experience with severe disabilities, and few will take the time to find out about what life is like living with deafness, blindness or disability. No, most people will fall back on what they know -- which is what they have garnered from novels, plays, films and television shows. So, it's only when such art forms begin to reflect the real lives of people with disabilities, will most folks get a better understanding of the 15 to 20 percent of Americans who live and cope daily with disabilities.

 

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