Singer-songwriter turned film writer-director Sia is under fire for not being inclusive with the cast of her upcoming film Music. Music is a drama film that revolves around a woman who is struggling to take care of her autistic sister. The film stars Kate Hudson, Leslie Odom Jr. and Maddie Zielger as the nonverbal sister with autism, who with the power of music conveys what she has to.
The controversial trailer of the film released on November 19 and has been receiving backlash ever since. Fans on Twitter were quick to notice the portrayal of an autistic girl as offensive and inaccurate, causing other celebrities and organizations such as The American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) tweeted, “Don’t watch the Sia video.”
The United Kingdom’s National Autistic Society also tweeted “Sia has got this one wrong.”
At first, Sia said that the film was inspired by her friend. On Friday, she tweeted, “I’m so confused. The character is based completely on my neuro-atypical friend. He found it too stressful being nonverbal and I made this movie with nothing but love for him and his mother.”
People, however, did not buy it and pointed out that she should have cast an autistic girl to play the character instead of Zielger. An Irish actor, Bronagh Waugh called her out by tweeting, “Can I ask why you didn’t cast a disabled actor for this part? It’s pretty offensive the way you’ve chosen to portray this character. People with disabilities are not broken and don’t need fixing.”
Sia responded by saying, “I actually tried working with a beautiful young girl non-verbal on the spectrum and she found it unpleasant and stressful. So that’s why I cast Maddie,”
Though elsewhere, she said, “Casting someone at (the character’s) level of functioning was cruel, not kind, so I made the executive decision that we would do our best to lovingly represent the community. … I did try. It felt more compassionate to use Maddie. That was my call.”
The Chandelier singer lost her cool and resorted to more hate in return by tweeting, “F***ity f*** why don’t you watch my film before you judge it? FURY.”
Grrrrrrrrrr. Fuckity fuck why don’t you watch my film before you judge it? FURY.
— sia (@Sia) November 20, 2020
Marlee Matlin, an American actor, novelist, author and the youngest Academy Award winner took notice of Sia’s harsh tweet.
Dear @Sia, With respect as a fellow artist, is this the kind of response you want people to see when discussing such an important topic such as people with Autism? Please don't be deaf to what they have to say. Marlee Matlin
— Marlee Matlin (@MarleeMatlin) November 21, 2020
One thing that got me thinking after Matlin’s response was how Hollywood conveniently disregards disabled actors by giving the roles to abled actors. So, for instance, if Matlin is to play the role of a deaf woman since she already has a hearing problem, her performance would be more authentic and convincing than that of an actress who would be playing to be deaf.
Some films that I can recall with the same irony of featuring abled bodies with disabilities were Stronger that transformed Jake Gyllenhaal by presenting a story of a man who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing. The true story showed the man’s struggles of learning to walk again with prosthetic limbs.
Such a character could have been better played by an actor who already has the same disability and knows how it really is to be without legs and being unable to walk.
The film Breathe where actor Andrew Garfield spent most of his time in a wheelchair was another real-life story of a man who got paralyzed by polio from the neck down.
Actors Daniel Day-Lewis and Eddie Redmayne won Academy Awards for playing disabled character roles in the films My Left Foot and The Theory of Everything respectively. Both the actors were praised for their respective performances in the films and adapting to a life they have never experienced, without receiving any major backlash or hate.
Sia has been under constant attack on social media and people are already boycotting the film and her music. She seems to be making things worse for herself in an attempt to defend her choices. By speaking out publicly and engaging with critics on Twitter, she only seems to be fueling hate. Replies like in the tweet shown below are not helping her case.
Autistic people demand representation. Not to mention the employment, as an able-bodied actor is taking the chance to play this role from one of them.
It is high time that Hollywood realizes the need of the hour and give opportunities to disabled actors wherever possible. It is also the responsibility of actors to turn down such roles and refer to their colleagues who can better, more authentically portray the character.