Frida Who? You know who
I mean. There's only one Frida these days. We might not know much
about her art, but we cannot escape the gaudy simulacra of her paintings
or the flashy evocations of the artist herself, plastered as they
are over a host of gift shop ephemera ranging from calendars to
coffee mugs, key chains to dolls. Only
yesterday, it seems, you had to hunt for a genuine art book about
Frida Kahlo. Today, she and her art have gone from revered cult
status to the cult of commodification, life and achievements set
to the music of money
The real Frida's art
was marked by a streetcar accident that left her in constant pain
and, yes, "victim" of a variety of orthopedic torture devices for
most of her life. These are facts you might not glean from "Frida,"
the current biopic. Well, in fairness, you will learn the facts,
but not their import, since Salma Hayek, who "embodies" Frida in
the film, plays her for gorgeous voluptuary instead of the woman
who transformed her disability into art while still railing against
it and the fate that brought her there.
Yes, Frida, you were
beautiful, in your way, but must we be denied the gruesome truth
of your broken back and crushed pelvis? Admittedly, it has never
been easy to depict an artist's life on-screen, nor has it been
easy to depict the truth of disability. It's been a long time since
"My Left Foot," and Hayek is no Daniel Day-Lewis.
When I went to see "The
Pianist" I was not seeking the cinematic equivalent of disability
truth, yet that movie left me with one indelible image, a scene
that felt truer to me, more viscerally true, than any single movie
moment I can recall. Scene: the Warsaw Ghetto after dark. Long Shot:
the camera pans up the fašade of an apartment house where we see,
through warmly lighted windows, families at dinner. Storm Troopers
rush up the stairs, burst into each apartment and order the Jews
out into the street.
In the last, highest
apartment one man fails to rise from the table on command; he is
in a wheelchair, it emerges. Lifting him, chair and all, to the
apartment's balcony, the troopers drop him into the street below.
Crip. Jew. Fag. Crip.
Why was I so moved, so terrified? What made me feel like I was
being dropped from a great height to end up smashed and bloody on
the cobblestones below? After all, things aren't like that today.
Until, that is, you look at the Storm Troopers of the Bush Administration,
intent on eviscerating every significant social service program
in sight. Until you learn that employment among people with disabilities
has undergone a long-term and steady decline for the past twenty
years. Despite recessions and wild prosperity during that period,
as well as major civil rights legislation, the decline continues,
measurable in real numbers, not just in the proportion of people
Add to that a few other
items, like the nearly total lack of accessible housing, the failure
of health care that falls disproportionately on disabled Americans,
the scandal of nursing home corruption pitted against the economic
logic of humane home care, and this Administration's continued initiatives
against gay rights, and then tell me that art is not imitating life.
Read the latest NYT report
about Jeffrey Sutton, approved by the Senate for a seat on the US
Appeals Court despite protests from people with disabilities who
say Sutton worked to curtail their rights, and then tell me that
Bush's Storm Troopers are not hurling us out of windows.
OK, I know that that's
not what Polanski had in mind, but thanks anyhow, Roman, you've
done us all an eye-opening mitzvah. Nevertheless, the challenge
of representing crip life on-screen remains. I wish someone would
try again. I would like to see a cripgay hero, of course,
but I'm willing to compromise in the heterosexual direction. In
order to interest Hollywood, we'll need to propose a life filled
with conflict, drama, failure, and triumph. Hmmm. That sounds like
most of the disabled people I know. But since I live in the San
Francisco Bay area, let me advance one ideal local candidate.
In 1962 Ed Roberts sued
to be admitted to the University of California at Berkeley. Thanks
to polio, Ed was a quad. The university administration could not
envision a student on a respirator, but Ed won his suit (in the
same semester that James Meredith sued to become the first black
person to enter the University of Mississippi).
Roberts, who died in
1995, established a center in Berkeley that became the progenitor
of Centers for Independent Living nationwide, centers that, today,
despite inadequate funding, remain instrumental in helping disabled
clients live fulfilling lives on many fronts
The pioneering efforts
of Ed Roberts and others prepared the ground for varieties of disability
culture unimaginable until then. Those achievements, in civil rights
and in broader cultural terms, are important to all Americans. What
an exciting movie the real story of Ed Roberts would make.
How successfully Ed's
achievements and the achievements of those who followed him will
survive the hate-mongering attacks of fundamentalists and Bushites
remains open to question. But while we are still here, alive and
kicking, we need to fight to be seen, on the Big Screen and everywhere
© 2003 BENT
Bob Guter has
been a bilateral amputee since the age of six as the result of
multiple birth defects. His writing has appeared in The New York
Times, Stagebill, and other publications. He lives in San Francisco
where he publishes and edits BENT.