Hearing Actor Riz Ahmed Nominated for Best Actor for Sound of Metal, A Film Portrayal of Deaf Culture

Crom SaundersI am pleased to introduce Crom Saunders as our guest blogger today. A theatre interpreter and American Sign Language (ASL) master, Crom has a M.A. in Creative Writing and began teaching ASL and Deaf Culture at several universities before getting tenure at Columbia College Chicago, where he is currently Director of Deaf Studies.

by Crom Saunders

Late last year I began seeing online articles and posts on social media expressing positive buzz about the portrayal of Deaf culture in Amazon Studio’s new movie Sound of Metal. I teach a college course called Deaf Representations in Media, so I was simultaneously hopeful…and ready for disappointment.

I was hopeful for a film that would present a refreshing take on deafness and Deaf culture (rather than the same tired old tropes that have been utilized ad nauseum since the 1920’s). But I was also prepared for disappointment because I have often seen such promotional ballyhoo about other films in the past, only to find them lacking and one-dimensional.

Sound of Metal is a story about a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing rapidly, goes into a funk, meets several Deaf characters and realizes that Deaf people lead fulfilling lives.

Recognizing that the Deaf culture amongst the Deaf community goes hand-in-hand with American Sign Language (ASL), Director Darius Marder brought Jeremy Lee Stone, a Deaf (ASL) sign coach on board as a cultural consultant. Actor Riz Ahmed portrays the drummer in the film and spent five days a week for seven months with Stone to prepare for his role.

This is a welcome break from tradition regarding hearing actors portraying deaf characters in films. A hearing actor portraying a Deaf character might learn a few lines in ASL, but nothing about the culture or the community behind the language. When nominees for the 2021 Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards were announced this morning, Ahmed was nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal of Ruben. The actor stated the following about his role in an interview with Variety Magazine:

“I think we bridged a bit of a divide between hearing and deaf culture which is often so segregated, and that’s the fault of hearing people. They overlook, marginalize and oppress deaf people. It was great to make that connection. Our connection was something on the unique side. It opened my eyes to the richness of Deaf culture.”

This presents quite the contrast with Alan Arkin, who garnered a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role as a Deaf-mute character in the 1968 film The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Arkin prepared for his role by visiting a school for the Deaf. He observed, “I visited a school for deaf-mutes in Montgomery and I learned they are not freaks. Stereotyped in my mind, they were always people who were not terribly bright, wildly animated at all times in trying to express themselves, and undisciplined emotionally.” At the end of the interview he surmised that he got that impression from watching another Deaf character portrayed by a hearing actress: Patty Duke as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. Arkin also added that, “The sign language was the easiest thing to learn, I got it in a day or two.” Spoiler alert: He really didn’t. His use of sign language in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is stilted, emotionless, and unrealistic.

Ahmed expresses himself much more authentically in Sound of Metal. His gradual immersion in the Deaf community and his language development of ASL ring true within the context of the story. In his Variety interview, Ahmed also commented on the process of learning ASL and how it not only enabled him to create a better portrayal but also opened the door to a new world for him. “To anyone who’s considering learning ASL or British Sign Language or any kind of sign language, do it because it will enrich your life with new friendships, new connections, and a new culture.” This is indeed a refreshing take on a hearing actor’s preparation for a Deaf role — almost completely original in Hollywood’s history of Deaf-centered stories.

However, one must question the originality of Sound of Metal, which has many similarities to the film It’s All Gone Pete Tong. The 2005 British-Canadian comedy concerns a DJ who loses his hearing rapidly, goes into a funk, meets a Deaf character and realizes that Deaf people lead fulfilling lives. Sound familiar?

Sound of Metal does have a few advantages over that 2005 film, though. Sound of Metal takes a more real-life approach to Ruben’s experience and transformation, and is far more inclusive of Deaf people—with one glaring exception.

Not Ahmed in the role of Ruben, but Paul Raci as Joe, the wise old Deaf person who lost his hearing in the Vietnam War. Paul Raci is a hearing actor who grew up in a Deaf family, so his ASL skills are at least at a native level of fluency. What irks me is that Raci’s portrayal has already generated Supporting Actor Oscar buzz, and I find that rather tiresome. The quality of his acting in this role is actually moot. The issue at hand is giving the role to the most qualified person, and the most qualified person to portray being a Deaf person is a Deaf person.

With a plethora of seasoned Deaf actors who can also speak for themselves, who could have been portrayed as veterans of Vietnam, Korea, or even Desert Storm, this casting decision is the latest in a long, long tradition of misguided intentions. Sound of Metal might be more authentic than many previous films and shows featuring Deaf characters, but the lens and portrayal still lack true credibility. However well the film Sound of Metal might perform at award ceremonies this year, I predict that finally, when a well-crafted film comes along with all Deaf roles appropriately cast with Deaf talent, there will be a new sound: the thunderous applause of a community validated.


 

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