Movie Reviews

CODA & 9 Other Movies Featuring Deaf & Hard Of Hearing Characters

Since Marlee Matlin’s role in Children of a Lesser God, film and television have grown in their diversity and inclusion when it comes to deaf characters and casting deaf actors in those roles.

RELATED: 10 Important Representations of People With A Disability in Movies

The amazing support, critical praise for roles like Matlin in Children of a Lesser God, and the opportunities created for deaf actors, have elevated the impact of big-screen film and created more diversity on screen for young, deaf film-watchers to learn from and relate to. These steps in the right direction are being celebrated by the deaf community, and viewers hope to see the progress continue.

CODA follows the story of a hearing girl who was born into a deaf family but dreams of going to school for music. Although the lead, Emilia Jones, is a hearing adult, the majority of the rest of the main cast members are deaf actors portraying deaf characters, including groundbreaking deaf female actor Marlee Matlin.

Jones took ASL lessons for nine months leading up to the film and is mostly fluent in the language now. The film is making history for its authentic and beautiful portrayal of the deaf community. CODA is nominated for Best Picture as well as Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, including the first nomination for Troy Kotsur. He is the first male deaf actor to be nominated in this category. The entire cast brought home a SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture as well.

Marvel’s Eternals opens with crawling text across the screen in what some have called an ode to Star Wars. By forcing the audience to read at the opening of a film, filmmakers are setting the tone for a new age of cinema, one where subtitles and text on-screen are used in order to expand the viewing experience for all kinds of people.

The film later goes on to introduce Lauren Ridloff, a deaf actor who portrays the Eternal, Makkari, in one of her best roles. Makkari is the first deaf superhero in the MCU, but her superpower is speed. By avoiding a cliche like giving her the superpower that elevates another one of her senses, they empower her deafness as part of the characteristics that make Makkari, Makkari. The film also utilizes subtitles when she speaks with other Eternals.

This post-apocalyptic horror film follows a family of four as they try to remain hidden from the monsters that stalk the world around them. In this unique take on the monster-horror genre, the monsters rely on their sense of hearing to hunt a person down. John Krasinski stars and directs A Quiet Place, alongside Emily Blunt and deaf actor Millicent Simmonds.

RELATED: 10 Unheard Behind-The-Scenes Facts About A Quiet Place

Simmonds was drawn to the storyline, but also the opportunity to highlight a deaf character and have that character played by a deaf actor. Not only that but for the majority of the film, she and her fellow actors communicate in American Sign Language. She has since become the forefront of the movement to cast more actors with disabilities, specifically hearing loss.

Children of a Lesser God made history in 1987 when Marlee Matlin won Best Actress at the Oscars, the first time a deaf actor ever won an Oscar. She was also the youngest female actor to ever win Best Actress, at 21. The story follows two employees at a school for the deaf as they navigate differing opinions about deafness while also becoming romantically involved.

This film helped to change the image of deaf people in popular culture and many give it credit for bringing deaf culture into the spotlight in general. It is a wonderful representation of the deaf community and truly highlights the struggle deaf people face within hearing culture, particularly the pressures they are under to conform and become more like hearing people.

Russell Harvard was cast as the roommate in the 2010 film about a deaf wrestler, The Hammer, but was then given the lead when the original lead actor, a hearing person, turned down the role out of respect for the deaf community.

Matt Hamill was an inspiration to the wrestling and mixed martial arts community as well as the deaf community, and that inspiration translated on screen in the film. The film received mixed reviews and didn’t get the kind of attention other sports biopics usually get, but the efforts the filmmakers made to cast a deaf actor in a deaf role are admirable and the story itself was genuinely inspiring.

Before her breakthrough in A Quiet Place, Millicent Simmonds stars in the heartwarming self-discovery tale called Wonderstruck. Simmonds plays a young deaf girl in the 1920s who goes to New York to follow in the footsteps of her favorite actress. Her story plays in juxtaposition to Ben who is living in the 1970s, recently deaf after being struck by lightning.

Director Todd Haynes uses a wonderful mixture of sound editing and color to bring significance to the deaf community. There are many moments in the film when all of the sounds are muted and only what is on screen is playing. Haynes said of the ode to silent movies in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, that “the language of silent movies seemed like a beautiful way to unite the hearing and non-hearing audiences.”

2022’s The 355 stars Jessica Chastain as one of a group of female spies who decide to work together to take down a terrorist organization and stop them from starting World War III. It is one of many great female ensemble films. The cast includes deaf actor Emilio Insolera who plays a professional hacker.

His previous filmography includes a film called Sign Gene: The First Deaf Superheros which he wrote and directed. Insolera was born deaf and was raised in Italy. He is an advocate for the deaf community, specifically in normalizing sign language. In fact, he produced the first Italian Sign Langage dictionary, in video format.

Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is an action film, starring Ansel Elgort, about a getaway driver who wants to escape a life of crime, and is a great movie for fans of car chase movies. The film has been studied for its use of thematic subject matter and an emphasis on color theory. It was nominated for a number of awards at the Oscars as well as the Golden Globes.

Baby’s foster father, Joe, is a deaf man living in a wheelchair. Deaf actor and comedian, CJ Jones, was cast in this role over a number of other non-deaf actors. Including a deaf character in a film that isn’t about the deaf community, normalizes having diversity in all of the various roles within a film aside from the plot. Films like this are marking a shift in Hollywood.

As a deaf actor, Saylee Mansfield began to land roles as deaf characters, and one of her first and most significant was as ZuZu in Netflix’s Feel the Beat. The film tells the story of a young dancer who wishes to find fame on Broadway but ends up back in her hometown coaching a young girl’s dance team. Mansfield plays one of her students.

RELATED: The 10 Best Dance Movies Ever Made, According to Ranker

Mansfield’s performance was great, but even greater is her determination to make a mark on the industry. In an interview with RepectAbility, she says she’s “grateful to have a platform that will give not only deaf children, but all children [a place] to freely speak up.”

The Family Stone is a typical American drama revolving around Christmas-time. It was a commercial success, and Sarah Jessica Parker was even nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance. Despite the similar formula to other family Christmas movies, this one includes a deaf and gay character. Tyrone Giordano plays Thad Stone, the family’s youngest son.

Director Thomas Bezucha drew inspiration from the groups of deaf students he used to see on the subway in New York. In an interview with The Seattle Times, he says of how they sign to one another, “it’s mesmerizing to watch. I had to have that in my movie.” And instead of just including the one deaf actor/character, he made sure that the entire cast knew sign language, and included many sequences where the family signed to their son in order to include them in their joking and fun.

NEXT: The Prom & 9 Other Movie Musicals That Celebrate Diversity

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