May 2003

On-screen Verities, or
WHERE'S FRIDA?

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 employed.

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 else.

© 2003 BENT

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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.