Is "CODA" the "Green Book" of films about deaf people?

The Oscar winner is not about, by or for who you think it is

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer
Published March 27, 2022 8:00AM (EDT)
Updated March 28, 2022 9:01AM (EDT)
Amy Forsyth, Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur in “CODA” (Apple TV+)
Amy Forsyth, Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur in “CODA” (Apple TV+)

Maybe we've been looking at "CODA" all wrong.

Before we begin: I am half deaf, born this way, raised by a hearing family. I have never fit into the hearing world, unable to follow spoken conversations, an isolation that has only gotten worse since the pandemic. 

I put off watching "CODA" because I had been told such things about it. Finally, a movie about deaf people with actually deaf actors! Conversely: This is "The Green Book" for deaf people!

That last comment refers to the 2018 Oscar-winning film about a white man who drives a Black musician on tour in the 1960s American south. Written and directed entirely by white people, its "inspirational" themes fall flat and its message, that of white saviorism, has since been disavowed.

"CODA" is an acronym for "child of a deaf adult." The Apple+ film tells the story of a teenage girl, Ruby (Emilia Jones) who is a CODA: the only hearing one in her family, which includes her devoted parents (Troy Kotsur and Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin) and an older brother (Daniel Durant). All are deaf except her – and wouldn't you know it, Ruby is a latent, fantastic singer. She decides her dream is music, something her deaf family — according to the film — could never understand. 

"CODA" has been nominated for Oscars. In fact, it's one of the leading contenders for Best Picture, along with Jane Campion's critically acclaimed "Power of the Dog." But despite phenomenal performances by all the actors, "CODA" isn't the movie deaf and Hard of Hearing people have been waiting for. (Update: "Coda" did win the Academy Award for best picture on Sunday.)

It's not about us. And it's not for us. 

Related: Dave Grohl: deaf like me – except, of course, not like me

"CODA" does have things in common with "The Green Book," the movie about racism written, directed and produced by white people. None of the creative team in charge of "CODA" identify as deaf, including its writer/director Sian Heder. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, when Heder was asked about writing and directing a movie about deaf people when she herself is not deaf, she said: "As a filmmaker, I see myself as a conduit." Viewing oneself as a voice for the voiceless could be seen as treading dangerously close to abled saviorism.  

The film was directly based on "La Famille Bélier," a 2014 French comedy that not only featured zero deaf actors in the deaf roles, but used deafness as the punch lines for many of its jokes.

The premise of "CODA" is troubling on paper: A deaf family whose hearing kid sings (cue the rimshot)! Many critics, deaf and hearing, have spoken to the implausibility of Ruby's family not understanding the appeal of music. Deaf people often love music, particularly loud music, which radiates with vibrations. "CODA" gets this right in one scene, where Ruby's dad Frank blasts hip-hop in their truck, and one of the most moving scenes in the film is where Frank feels Ruby's throat to sense her singing, Kotsur's face a tapestry of incredible emotion. 

But Ruby's mom Jackie thinks $2 Goodwill speakers are a "waste of money." Ruby's hearing friend asks if her parents "even know what music is." Alongside that, many parents support their kids' dreams, especially parents who are loving and encouraging in every other way, as Ruby's are. You support your child even if you don't understand them (this is why I, the writer, am constantly at rock and mineral shows for my geology-loving kid). The continued resistance of Ruby's parents, especially Jackie, to Ruby's love of music seems forced. 

"CODA" also makes some weird missteps in the hypersexualization of Ruby's parents and her brother. Her parents have to see a doctor for a sex-related fungal infection, and the whole family obsesses over brother Leo's Tinder at dinner. It's great that we have disabled characters talking about and obviously having sex. Disabled people have sex too! But Frank and Jackie only have sex for long stretches of the movie, including in the middle of the day when Ruby has a friend over, and then they talk incessantly about it. Having not seen the original French film, I wonder if this is a holdover from the farce? It borders on fetishization. 

The film does get some big things right about experiences of deafness. Ruby's family is LOUD. Like some deaf people, I have no idea how much noise I might make sometimes. I can't really hear my voice and can't regulate it (Ruby says deaf people talking is "ugly" in the film).

Ruby's family is also poor. This could be attributed to their work as family fishermen in Gloucester, Massachusetts. But the fact is, disabled people are much more likely to live in poverty than non-disabled people for a combination of reasons: We're passed over for jobs. We're still legally paid less than abled people. Fewer than 40% of deaf and Hard of Hearing people have been able to find fulltime work.

Frank, Jackie and brother Leo also lack community. They see deaf friends, according to Ruby "once a month" (honestly, in pandemic times, this seems aspirational), but have never really belonged in the community of Gloucester, despite living there for at least two generations. I wish the film made more of this total lack of belonging, since it is often so much a part of experiences of deafness and of disability. When no one bothers to learn your language (or to find other ways to communicate with you) it's hard not to feel alone.

The best thing "CODA" does right is casting Matlin, Kotsur and Durant. All are extraordinary. Matlin conveys so much about motherhood, struggle and longing with a look. Durant's tearful speech on the beach, telling his sister to go, is beyond moving. Screen Actors Guild Award winner Kotsur is rightfully nominated for an Oscar — and if he wins, which he should, he will make history (he already has, as the first deaf actor to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar; Matlin was the first deaf performer to win an Oscar for Best Actress).

But appropriate casting is also the very least the filmmakers could have done, and other films about marginalized people should have been doing for years.

So much of "CODA" is the experience of an abled person who resents her disabled family for needing her to interpret for them (where are the professional sign language interpreters in this world?). CODAs do sometimes have to interpret for their parents, an unfair position especially for a child (as Frank says about Ruby: "She was never a baby."). That's fine to place that agenda on the story — but it's an experience and POV that still preferences non-disabled people. That's the lens that we observe deafness through in "CODA": an abled lens. Heder said that "'CODA' became an incredibly personal movie for me, even though it's not my culture," saying that she related to Ruby, who is not deaf.

But this movie is touted and celebrated as a "deaf" movie. It's not.

We don't have one.  

The percentage of working TV and film writers who are disabled is .07% according to 2020 data from the Writers Guild of America West. This is the smallest percentage of any marginalized group in Hollywood. As disabled people make up 28% of the population, this disparity "suggests severe employment discrimination." 

That's less than 1% of disabled writers working in film and TV. Many disabled writers are likely not even creating their own shows or writing on them, but serving as consultants, advising abled people on stories written about disabled people but not by them. 

There are several issues here. Consulting is low-paying work. It does not give membership into a writing guild (a guild can provide health insurance) and it diminishes the importance of disabled writers' own projects. There is only one incentive to support disabled writers in Hollywood that I know about: Inevitable Foundation. It's new and does not have the same support of fellowships and programs for other marginalized creators in Hollywood.

There aren't even any statistics available for disabled directors. 

When I finally watched "CODA," alone in my room, I cried at the end. Because the music is emotional (Jones' voice stuns). Because the trio of deaf actors deserve so many deeper and better roles. Because of the fantasy — and it is a fantasy — of townspeople suddenly learning sign language and welcoming the family they had previously ostracized. 

And I cried because as long as films like this are celebrated as a portrait of deafness, there is no place for a storyteller who is actually deaf in Hollywood.  

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"CODA" is many things. It's a teen girl's awakening. It's a sweet comedy. But it isn't about deaf people. It's about a hearing woman. She's compelling, her story is interesting, if not the most unique. We have so few mainstream stories, it's hard not to cling to this glimmer of hope. But "CODA" is not a movie by deaf people, and I would argue it's not for those of us who are deaf, either. 

The song that Ruby sings so masterfully? It's "Both Sides, Now" by Joni Mitchell, its "both sides" lyrics meant to inspire the audience, I guess, that she lives in both worlds, the hearing and the abled. But she's abled. She's bilingual, not oppressed. Those of us who live on both sides — or, it often feels like, no sides — are disabled, trying to navigate a world that doesn't care to let us speak for ourselves.

"CODA" is, in some ways, a good film. It's sweet. It's well-shot. All the actors shine, as does the setting. But it's not a revelation. What will be a revelation is when an actor like Kotsur is cast in any role, not "simply" a deaf one. What will be a revelation is when a deaf writer and director is offered the financing and platform to tell a story — about our lives, sure, but also, about anything. 

"CODA" is available to stream on Apple TV+. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube.

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By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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Asl Coda Commentary Deaf Deafness Disability Diversity Hollywood Movies Oscars The Green Book