The first time I heard about Don’t Breathe, a new film from Fede Alvarez, the director of the Evil Dead reboot, was when a friend who is blind sent me a message on FB asking if I had seen the trailer. People come to me all the time, asking my thoughts on films that feature disability. I hadn’t heard of it, generally because I find horror to be lacking these days in most incarnations. However, I quickly found the Red Band trailer on YouTube and watched it.
I’m not at all surprised that the film uses some type of disability, in this case both blindness and possible mental health disabilities (PTSD?), to propel the story forward. Of course, the disabled person is also not the protagonist. That is reserved for a nondisabled, attractive young woman named Rocky (Jane Levy). Despite going along with her boyfriend, Alex (Dylan Minnette), and his friend, Money (Daniel Zovatto), who suggest they rob a blind man, Rocky is still the person with whom the audience is expected to empathize. The trailers show a young woman in an abusive home just trying to find a way out with her little sister. They have to make you feel sorry for her, because the blind antagonist has a built-in level of pity society already feels for him. Making her a tragic character who is just trying to survive allows for the audience to more acceptably root against the blind guy.
As for the blind character, he has no real name. He is known simply as The Blind Man. The actor playing him, Stephen Lang, says the blind man rarely speaks. So already, the blind character has no real voice of his own, and he has no name. He has been stripped of all identity other than that of a blind man. Lang is not disabled, at least not physically, so he says he did homework (watching videos of blind people), and he relied on his non-blind director to tell him if he was believable. That’s right. He had someone not blind telling him if he made a good blind person. He also said it was about studying the physical behaviors of blind people, so he could make his portrayal realistic.
Lang told Daily Dead, “I worked closely in concert with Fede, because he’s the one who’s looking through the lens. He’s the one who can tell me if what I’m doing is believable. I did my homework too, though, so I could have an understanding of what some of the physical behaviors are.”
This is the major problem with nondisabled people playing characters with disabilities. They believe disability is nothing more than a set of physical characteristics, even when the disability is invisible. For Lang, it was very important that the audience saw his eyes. In interviews he has spoken about how they use special contacts to ensure his eyes look like they were damaged by shrapnel. It is also implied that his character is unhinged, while possibly having PTSD, as he is a war veteran who “suffered” from his war injuries. That is what is used to explain why he hunts down and tortures the three young adults who break into his home. Even when Rocky escapes the home, he quickly appears behind her, and then he drags her back into the house, so he can force her to play a cat and mouse game of survival.
Is anyone justified in protecting themselves from intruders? Absolutely, but this is NOT self-defense. The blind man pursued Rocky outside his home and brought her back inside. He is playing a sick game with them. Instead of rooting for the person they were trying to rob, many audience members will see the blind man as the villain in this. Of course, some people like to root for the villain, but the empathy for the character, Rocky, who actually has a NAME, is prevalent throughout the film.
Don’t Breathe, at its core, is full of ableism. The marketing is using slogans like “In the dark the blind man is king,” which further uses disability as a means of propelling the story forward. I mean, nobody expects blind people to defend themselves or be capable of doing so. That would be terrifying! You would never ‘see’ that coming! Sarcasm aside, the fact that the filmmakers also fail to recognize that ableism is present in their film or at the very least, their trailer, doesn’t bode well for the blind community.
Most people do not seem to realize that harmful portrayals have long lasting effects on those they are meant to represent. Every time a disabled person is played by a nondisabled person, who is relying on physical characteristics to depict disability, audiences learn what they THINK is accurate about disability. Rarely is it correct. Media representation makes people pity us, fear us, hate us, and see us as burdens. Most of the misinformation about disability comes from media portrayals. These portrayals affect how we are treated, whether we are included, and even whether politicians are willing to pass legislation in support of our needs.
Not only are portrayals important, but not casting disabled actors in these roles gives Hollywood another reason not to cast us in the next project that comes along. As a community we need to demand casting agents audition disabled actors. I fully believe that we need to stop making films that depict disabled people as nothing more than disabled. We need to be cast as protagonists who are people who just happen to have a disability, but our disability isn’t the only thing we are. We also need to be included as background players in all kinds of films. Things need to change on so many levels. However, as I have said many times before, if we are not even allowed to play ourselves then who are we allowed to play?