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CODA – Breaking down barriers for deaf actors

Contributed by James Pocock

08/04/2022 • 4 min read

Last week, CODA won Best Picture at the 94th Academy Awards.

While there has been some criticism around the film, with the Guardian describing it as ‘formulaic’ and the Spectator calling it a ‘middle-of-the-road tear-jerker’ that ‘didn’t deserve’ an Oscar, there is no denying that it has made history. Troy Kotsur, winning Best Supporting Actor, became the first-ever deaf actor to win an individual Oscar. His co-star, actress Marlee Matlin, won Best Actress in 1986, not only becoming the youngest-ever actress to have won the award, but also the first, and, to this day, only deaf actress to have achieved the feat.

The fact that there’s been more than a 35-year wait between the two is a testament to the struggle that deaf actors have faced.

The story of CODA, a remake of the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier (which controversially cast hearing actors for the deaf roles), follows the Rossi family: parents Frank (Kotsur) and Jackie (Matlin) and their two children, Leo (played by deaf actor Daniel Durant), and their hearing daughter, Ruby (Emilia Jones). Ruby must navigate the pitfalls of high school while also helping her family’s floundering fishing business, acting as their interpreter and trying to pursue her dream of going to college to study music.

CODA, an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults, undoubtedly opened itself up to criticism from the Deaf community too, with some criticising the portrayal of the family’s dependence on their daughter, the absence of professional interpreters and the family’s almost complete detachment from the community.

But what can’t be denied is that this is the first film to have three deaf actors in leading roles. We’ve talked about Rose Ayling-Ellis’s Strictly win, Only Murders in the Building’s completely silent episode, and the emotional impact of hearing loss in Sound of Metal. Regardless of the plot, or how true it stays to real-life the experiences of children of deaf adults experiences, the film showcases the wealth of deaf talent available.

By casting them in the leading role and telling their story, deaf people aren’t being marginalised, and hopefully this is the beginning of a trend, not just a fad. The fact that a film with a mostly deaf leading cast can win Best Picture can only be a good thing: not only does it showcase deaf actors starring in leading roles but doing so in such a way to create a film worthy of cinema’s most prestigious award.