"Nothing about us without us" is more than just a catchy phrase. It's a way of life for those of us with disabilities, myself included.
In 2017, the Ruderman Family Foundation produced a white paper showing that while 20-25% of the U.S. population has a disability, fewer than 2% of all television characters had a disability, and 95% of top TV show characters with disabilities were played by non-disabled performers (Ruderman 2017).
In 2021, a report from Think Tank for Inclusion & Equity (TTIE), Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, and Women in Film showed that 93.0% of writers said their most recent writers room had no Disabled or Deaf writers.
In theatre, there is no significant data available on representation of disability.
When we do see disability on the big screen or on stages, it's either inauthentically represented by actors searching for awards glory or practically drowning in shame-based narratives, a one-note caricature, or what the late Stella Young referred to as "inspiration porn."
As a paraplegic/double amputee with spina bifida born in the mid-60's, I can say that it has been in my lifetime eugenics laws have still been prevalent and that public schools were still exclusively the territory of those determined to be "able." I was a creative type from an early age, though it wasn't until college that I found a professor bold enough and experimental enough to cast me in productions ranging from Whose Life Is It Anyway? the musical Working and others.
So, you'll have to excuse me just a bit if I may have shed a tear or two of joy while watching Regan Linton and Brian Malone's Imperfect, a documentary about a professional company of actors tackling the acclaimed Kander & Ebb Broadway musical Chicago under the direction of Regan Linton, a wheelchair using actress/director/advocate/filmmaker who has performed with Oregon Shakespeare Festival, La Jolla Playhouse, Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ Off-Center, Pasadena Playhouse, Big-I (Osaka, Japan), Mixed Blood (MN), The Apothetae (NY), and Phamaly, among others. Here, we discover Linton in her former role as Artistic Director for Denver's Phamaly Theatre Company. Phamaly is a nonprofit theatre that re-imagines established works while exclusively casting actors with all nature of disabilities.
Here, Phamaly re-imagines Chicago with a cast comprised of talented souls living rather gloriously with all sorts of disabilities such as spinal cord injury, Parkinson's Disease, Autism, Cerebral Palsy, and a host of others.
Imperfect captures raw, honest stories inside the production process and inside the daily lives of disabled creatives living into their talents and living into their dreams. There's an authenticity that radiates throughout Imperfect, not just because we have an actual cast of actors and actresses with disabilities and not just because the production itself is directed by an acclaimed and widely respected actress and wheelchair user but because Imperfect manages to tell the truth without dipping its cinematic toes, or phantom toes in my case, into faux inspiration or trumped up histrionics. Imperfect offers us real life with disability, which is pretty damn amazing I might add, and real life acting with a disability with its unique challenges and remarkable moments along with those moments of vulnerability that may very well be unique to the disability experience.
The film is co-directed by Linton with Brian Malone, a 10-time Heartland Emmy Award winning filmmaker who was previously interviewed by The Independent Critic when his film Reengineering Sam screened at Indy's Heartland International Film Festival. Then and now, it was obvious that Malone was interested in telling authentic stories about authentic people living life in extraordinary ways. As I looked at the credits for Imperfect and saw Malone's name, I muttered to myself "That makes perfect sense."
Indeed, it does.
Both Linton and Malone clearly demand honesty here, Linton herself unflinchingly showing her own daily living experience from morning routines to wheelchair repairs to the daily rigors of stage rehearsals and her own desires to return to the stage herself. Possessing master's degrees in both social work and fine arts, Linton undeniably utilizes both backgrounds here as both the creative force guiding Phamaly and the director facilitating performances by a wide-ranging cast of creative spirits with varying emotional, physical, and cognitive challenges.
While it's undeniable that Imperfect is largely centered around Linton's leadership of this production, there is no production without a cast and the personalities that come to life throughout Imperfect are a delightful tapestry of the human experience whose lives are portrayed without the usual rose-colored glasses through which we often see portrayals of disability but instead honesty about their humanity and honesty about living life with disability, a life, one should acknowledge, that inherently requires an enormous amount of creativity.
Imperfect is, early in 2022, already one of the year's most engaging and entertaining feature docs. The film captured the People's Choice Award at the Denver International Film Festival and is premiering this weekend in competition at the acclaimed Slamdance. It's got a slew of fests already lined up and will no doubt continue to be a people's favorite and critical darling.
The world is changing.
Authentic representation is happening. Slowly.
In 2019, Ali Stroker became the first wheelchair using actress to grace the Broadway stage and deservedly took home a Tony Award for her work in a revival of Oklahoma!
Lawrence Carter-Long is a widely respected, and very loud, voice for authentic representation and acclaimed actor/comedian Nic Novicki's Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, for which this film journalist is a judge, continues to grow in esteem and popularity each year. Studios are increasingly embracing calls for authentic representation and discovering a world of immensely talented actors and actresses waiting to meet their needs.
Oscar-winning documentary Crip Camp was co-directed by longtime Hollywood sound designer Jim Lebrecht, a wheelchair user with spina bifida whose next film project has already been announced.
From the opening frames of Imperfect, it becomes apparent that Regan Linton is a force to be reckoned with, an outspoken advocate with a richness of humanity and a deep well of talent whose presence has blazed trails and, yes, set the stage for others to follow. The importance of Imperfect is immeasurable, yet the film is also an immensely entertaining and downright enjoyable experience that rejects stale notions of disability and celebrates the wide diversity of the human experience in all its uniqueness.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic