ast month I was invited by a young aspiring disabled actor, AJ Murray, to a screening at a film festival of a new documentary, Becoming Bulletproof,in which he’s featured. It tells the story of a group of disabled and non-disabled actors coming together as part of an inclusive arts project, Zeno Mountain Farm, to make a short movie in the California desert, a mini-western called Bulletproof. The documentary has enjoyed rave reviews and been rapturously received at festivals and screenings across North America. And with good reason.
At a time when people with disabilities continue to be woefully underrepresented or employed in film and TV, either in front of or behind the camera, Becoming Bulletproof compels its audiences to think differently about disability. But it also indirectly challenges those involved in the entertainment industry to reassess the contributions disabled people can make.
By chronicling the production of the mini-western from early preparations to being on set, to the premiere and by harnessing thoughtful interviews with the actors who have a range of physical and intellectual impairments, the result is insightful and entertaining. Becoming Bulletproof works because it avoids regurgitating tired tropes, such as saccharine tales of overcoming adversity, while managing to communicate the barriers that persist for disabled people in everyday life and for people like Murray who want to break into TV or film.
When Murray, who has cerebral palsy, talks to camera about his dream of becoming an actor, you see a young man with ambition who refuses to be defined by disability. The film’s director, Michael Barnett, says: “We wanted to make an exceptionally humanising film, and to start a conversation about how disabled people, rarely seen on screen or in our media, are excluded from our wider culture. Why? And what are we missing when we reduce our human diversity?”
It would be difficult for anyone watching Becoming Bulletproof not to think it’s time we all demanded to know why there aren’t more opportunities in film and TV for people with disabilities. Not just by increasing the number of roles and portrayals on screen – issues that have been raised time and again in the UK and the US and that have seen some moves towards greater equality, includingrecently at the BBC – but also when it comes to jobs right across the industry.
Lawrence Carter-Long, an authority on the history of people with disabilities in film and TV who works for the federal National Council on Disability and has researched the subject extensively, says this latest documentary is a step in the right direction but that much more needs to be done in the mainstream entertainment and film sectors. “It’s improving but that’s not saying much because the situation has been pretty dismal,” says Carter-Long, who has a disability.
Even with a growth in the number of disabled characters, (“we’re not even talking actors”), the status quo is a long way off reflecting the disabled population (19%-20% in the US according to the last census). Research consistently shows, Carter-Long points out, that the proportion of disabled characters on screen “hovers at around 1%”.
In the UK signs are increasingly encouraging, not least with primetime television soaps such as EastEnders and Coronation Street casting people with disabilities. In the case of Coronation Street, 26-year-old Liam Bairstow made history in August this year when he became the first actor with Down’s Syndrome to be hired by the show.
It’s early days, but the positive reception to Becoming Bulletproof so far could be seen as evidence of a market for quality work that includes or is about disabled people. It also may explain why the company run by Morgan Spurlock of Supersize Me fame has just struck a deal with the documentary makers for distribution rights, which Barnett hopes will see the film screened beyond the US very soon.
Murray believes a good starting point could be a conference that brings together “artists, writers, producers, executives and also studio heads to discuss all these issues and how to bring about real, practical change”. Whatever the route, there’s little doubt that something needs to change – and soon. As Murray says: “Disabled people should have a seat at the pop culture table.”