Moving Pictures
Apr 15, 2024, 06:26AM

Children of a Lesser God is About Defeating Prejudice—And Being Defeated By It

The first Best Picture nominee directed by a woman has a mixed legacy.

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Randa Haines’ 1986 Children of a Lesser God was the first Oscar Best Picture nominee directed by a woman. It’s an appropriate first; the movie’s about a woman finding her voice and self. At the same time, the movie’s stylistic choices, and even more the violent sexist abuse directed in real life at its star, undermine its message of empowerment and acceptance. The film’s a breakthrough and a painful illustration of why, in the 38 years since it was released, only 21 other women have managed to get their movies nominated for Best Picture.

Haines had mostly worked as a TV movie director before Children of a Lesser God. The film feels designed for the small screen—the visuals are workmanlike, the sets are limited— but that’s fitting for a small scale, intimate melodrama. The plot centers on James Leeds (William Hurt), a young, innovative speech therapist starting work at a school for the deaf in New England. James, who can hear, is attracted to Sarah (Marlee Matlin) an entirely deaf, non-verbal former student now working at the school as a janitor. The two fall in love, but their relationship is troubled by Sarah’s continued refusal to let James teach her to speak.

Hollywood loves films about disabled people, so it’s not surprising that Children received a nomination. This is a far cry from ableist inspiration porn like Rain Man, though. Matlin is deaf—one of the few deaf actors to portray a deaf character in a high profile role. More, the film confronts with some sensitivity and sympathy hearing people’s condescension, and the pressure on deaf people to assimilate. Sarah was traumatized in childhood; her family and teachers thought she was mentally disabled for years, and because of her parents’ anger, rejection, and prejudice Sarah was pushed into adolescent hypersexual behavior and a simmering rage. James believes that these experiences explain her reluctance to lip read or learn to speak. But the movie doesn’t necessarily agree with him. Instead, Sarah eloquently (through sign language) argues that James’ desire to change her reflects his own ableism, sexism, and interests, and is an assault on her autonomy.

you think for me, think for Sarah, as if there were no ‘I.’ ‘She will be with me, quit her job… learn how to speak.’ That’s all you, not me. Until you let me be an ‘I,’ the way you are, you can never come inside my silence and know me. And I won’t let myself know you. Until that time, we can’t be like this, joined.

That’s a powerful statement. And yet, the movie undercuts it. The film starts out from James’ perspective; you meet him, in the film, before you meet her, and until that emancipatory speech most of the way through the run-time, you barely see Sarah without him. After Sarah leaves him to try to find herself and focus on her own desires, the movie’s attention becomes somewhat more equal. But even at the end, in a final party scene for school graduation, you enter the celebration with James, and follow his eyes to see Sarah across the room. The movie defines her through his gaze, which is exactly what she says she doesn’t want.

As with Sarah’s image, so with her words. Sarah isn’t, throughout the film, allowed to speak for herself. Probably because the script was originally for the stage, the movie makes no use of subtitles, which would frame her signing as an independent, valid language through recognizable film vernacular. Instead, when Sarah signs, her interlocutors repeat her words for hearing viewers. As a result, Sarah’s speech about how she has to be allowed to have her own voice is spoken by James.

Haines, as a woman director, is trying to tell a story about how marginalized people—specifically disabled people and women—deserve the chance to tell their own stories and shape their narratives. But she’s stymied in part by mainstream demands to center male, abled people, and to orient films towards the hearing, first and foremost (there’s no sign language interpreter for the dialogue that is only spoken, not signed).

Mainstream expectations and prejudices complicate the film’s message of empowerment in other respects as well. Hurt, who was 35, and Matlin, who was 19, had a real, and extremely abusive, relationship off set. Matlin said that Hurt, who was often drunk, beat her repeatedly, and raped her on at least one occasion. He was also emotionally abusive. On the night of the Oscars, where she won for Best Actress and he lost for Best Actor, he sneered at her in the car, “What makes you think you deserve it?”

Hurt’s question resonates queasily, still. In 2023, only 12 percent of the top grossing films in Hollywood were directed by women. As in 1986 so today, men, and Hollywood, are reluctant to acknowledge women’s accomplishments, or give women (and other marginalized people) access to the independence and the capital they’d need to speak and be heard.

Haines and Matlin courageously demanded that Hollywood look to new voices. Hollywood has changed a bit since then; the movie CODA, in which Matlin starred, and which was directed by a woman, won Best Picture in 2021. But despite such signs of progress, Hollywood continues to see, hear and interpret only a small portion of the human experience. Those who aren’t able, heterosexual white men still have to prove, in the face of inertia, prejudice, and skepticism, that they’re deserving.


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