2018 — The Year Sign Language in Film Went Mainstream
How The Heroes Behind The Silent Child and A Quiet Place Are Leading The Charge For The Normalization of Deafness in Cinema
While many films of the past have featured deaf characters, and starred actual deaf actors and actresses to portray them, only in most recent history have we been given consistent enough filmic examples of this to lend credence to the idea that deafness as a subject in cinema, as in society, is finally (and thankfully) coming out of the shadows.
2017 started things off with two films whose plot lines were quite wrapped up in the matters of hearing sensitivity. Baby Driver justifies its main conceit, a string of stunningly-choreographed (and expertly-stunt acted) car chases put to music, by explaining that the title character’s tinnitus condition was both the result of a traumatic accident and the impetus for his superb getaway skills. Wonderstruck, a film adaptation of Brian Selznick’s children’s book of the same name, follows a boy who becomes deaf, also because of an accident, and takes a journey alone into New York City to learn about his missing father. While Baby Driver was a surprise hit, it did not specifically tackles issues of deafness in society. Wonderstruck, though dealing with this topic head-on, was underwhelming commercially and modestly-received by critics.
It wasn’t until 2018 when two films — one short, the other a feature — proved that movies featuring deafness could be both an artistic success and a cultural triumph.
The Silent Child
In an Oscar year shrouded by the dark cloud of Harvey Weinstein and the resulting fallout, one of the 90th Annual Academy Awards’ most hopeful moments came when The Silent Child won Best Live-Action Short Film. The film’s co-star and screenwriter, Rachel Shenton, chose to use her precious seconds on the Dolby stage giving a sign language acceptance speech. This rousing moment received ecstatic applause during the ceremony and throughout the world, later resulting in several interviews and articles on Rachel’s quick, but not surprising, rise to fame.
What much of the press in the moment fails to capture, however, is that Rachel has been working towards this important story ever since her pre-adolescence. By far the most formative period of Rachel’s young life came when her father became deaf due to chemo complications in treating his cancer. But from great tragedy came great resolve. She would later master sign language, become an ambassador for the National Deaf Children’s Society, and perform a series of body-and-soul-defying feats (climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro chief among them) for the sake of raising funds towards the important charities in her life.
Yet in all of the above feats, none of her humanistic endeavors had overlapped with her actual job. Before making Oscar history, Shenton had a steady career in television, with regular roles in British soaps’ Hollyoaks and ABC Family’s teenage drama Switched at Birth. All the while, she’d been working on the screenplay that would eventually become The Silent Child. Originally, she could have only dreamed of her writings ever becoming a reality (and Oscar reality). However, thanks to hard-earned fundraising efforts, a creative (and romantic) partnership with the film’s director, Chris Overton, and the fateful audition from deaf child actress Maisie Sly, the short film’s uncompromising vision came to life — and even found a mainstream audience in the process.
Rarely does a non-documentary short film carry a message this earnest (advocating for sign language support in the classroom and at home) without devolving into one-dimensional preachiness. You can thank Rachel Shenton’s smart story structure and unsentimental ending (sure to land a gut punch to just about any viewer) for that.
A Quiet Place
Exactly a month after the Oscars ceremony came the completely unexpected cultural domination of atmospheric horror flick A Quiet Place. Much has already been made of how director John Krasinski (of The Office fame), actress Emily Blunt, and writers Bryan Woods and Scott Beck turned an intimate and unconventional horror flick about characters forced to use sign language to survive into a $200 + million dollar behemoth. But less has been made of the film’s unsung hero: Douglas Ridloff.
Ridloff is a sign language slam poet who runs the Deaf Poet’s Society. This New York-based poetry gathering uses the “visual vernacular” of sign language to share poetry by the deaf, for the deaf. Though anyone can enjoy Ridloff’s creative and engaging videos, only those with thorough knowledge of ASL will be able to pick up on the intricacies and plays with language.
Not one to miss an opportunity when he sees one, Krasinski hired Ridloff on as a consultant for the film, ensuring that all silent interactions between characters were true, realistic and respectful to a very real language. While in the past, Hollywood filmmaking would have disregarded this level of accuracy and rigor, our modern culture (and culture creators) have gone a long way in appreciating sign language as a legitimate mode of communication, and one necessary to the practical and creative expression of all deaf peoples.
You can watch The Silent Child right now, available on Miniflix.
Catch A Quiet Place while it is still in theaters nationwide.