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The Descendants Movie PosterMy wife and I don’t get out to see many movies. With a two and a half year-old, and a second baby due this week, a 100 year-old house that is an on-going fixer upper and two full-time jobs between us, our free time as a couple is limited. Even with a little free time, it is rare that we choose to use it to go see a movie. Yet, while hearing so many wonderful reviews and comments about “The Descendants” it has been in my head that I want to make an effort to get to the theater and see this movie. I love George Clooney. I love Alexander Payne’s previous films like “Sideways” and “About Schmidt.” And I love intelligent stories about real human beings and real emotion.

I imagine there are many people whose situation mirrors mine in both limited free time and adulation of the artists I mentioned. This is why I feel compelled to share the following disclaimer to the families of Special Olympics athletes – if hearing the word “retarded” used several times in a gratuitous joke within a movie is something that is going to ruin a night out for you, save your time and heartache and do not see “The Descendants.” Your precious free time is too valuable to be surprised with disappointment and hurt in the two hours you looked so forward to and coordinated so hard to make happen. See or do something else.

I’m happy to put forth the disclaimer that I am amongst the lucky ones who did not see the movie with great anticipation only to be crushed at the multiple uses of the R-word. But our blogger friend and special needs mom Jenny Dawn did see it, and she shared her firsthand experience on her blog. She also shared a snippet of manuscript text from the novel of the same name from which the screenplay was adapted. I simply want to pay it forward to save other families the hurt Jenny, and no doubt many others, experienced.

Below is Jenny’s brief paraphrase of the movie’s dialogue:

Clooney’s character Matt says, “You are so retarded.”
Nick Krause’s character Sid replies, “That’s not nice.  I have a retarded brother.”
Matt looks shocked.
Sid goes on to say, “I’m just kidding. I don’t have a retarded brother. Sometimes when old people and retarded people are slow I just want to make them hurry up.”

And here is the dialogue she pulled from the novel of the same name with the first person voice belonging to Clooney’s character, Matt King:

I face my daughter, “You know you’re dating a complete retard. You know that, don’t you?”
“My brother’s retarded, man.” Sid says. “Don’t use it in a derogatory way.”
“Oh.” I don’t say anything more hoping he’ll interpret my silence as an apology.
“Psych,” he says and now kicks the back of my seat. “I don’t have a retarded brother!” His little trick is giving him a great amount of amusement. “Speaking of the retarded,” he says, “do you ever feel bad for wishing a retarded person or an old person or a disabled person would hurry up? Sometimes I wait for them to cross the street and I’m like, ‘Come on already!’ but then I feel bad.

So consider yourself fairly warned about the movie. If you’d like to read on about what sort of action you can take in our continued battle against the R-word, please read on!

Once I became aware of this latest instance of the R-word being used in our mainstream culture, my job calls for me to look into the occurrence and help figure out a course of action in how the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign can help empower people to take action. Once I started looking under the hood at the film and the people involved, I’m not sure if I became more or less discouraged about what our chances are of being heard by anyone who will have the guts to stand up and make a difference.  Maybe you can help me decide.

Let’s start with the big fish, The Clooney Machine. This film is another Oscar vehicle for him, he is beloved my millions and by all accounts a pretty good dude who is very socially conscious.

The other actor who uses the R-word in the film is 19 year-old Nick Krause who seems to be nothing more than a talented young actor trying to make a name for himself.

The primary driver of this movie is Alexander Payne. He wrote it, directed it and produced it under his LLC, Ad Hominem Enterprises. When I read about Payne, he sounds like a pretty good dude too. I love how big of an advocate he is for what he calls “literate movies.” Take this quote, “There is an audience out there for literate films – slower, more observant, more human films, and they deserve to be made.” Amen! And this nugget, “It’s my hope that we’re getting into an era where the value of a film is based on its proximity to real life rather than its distance from it.” Preach on!

There are even a couple of six degrees of separation connections between Special Olympics and Payne. For example, he was born in and went to high school in Omaha, Nebraska and will often set his films in and around the area. Well, our 2010 Special Olympics USA National Games were in Lincoln, Nebraska and coincided with a huge youth activation summit and education conference in Omaha. Also, Payne (birth name Alexander Constantine Papadopoulos) is Greek. We just held an incredibly successful World Games in Athens this year.

Payne even stands up for the little guy. He is, according to IMDB.com, known to often cast real people in minor roles – an actual policeman playing a policeman, an actual restaurant server playing a server and an actual teacher playing a teacher. Cool, right?

One thing that actually has me a little encouraged is a quote from Payne which I believe shows that if we can actually make him aware of the hurtful nature of the R-word and why it isolates and hurts people with intellectual disabilities and those that love them, that he’d get it right away. In an acceptance speech Payne once said, “I think there may be a problem with a world in which making small, human and humorous films is ‘an achievement.’ It should be the norm.” To me, a parallel is easily drawn there to the daily struggles of people with intellectual disabilities fighting to be accepted and included.

Given the chance to speak to Payne I’d like to let him know that I think there may be a problem with a world in which acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities is celebrated as an achievement. It should be the norm. The continued perpetration of the R-word as a punchline in popular culture prevents this from becoming reality because it allows negative stereotypes and perceptions of those with special needs to persist.

The final entity I’ll put into play here is an immense disappointment with Fox Searchlight, the theatrical distributor of the film in the United States. Fox, in general, has been a terrific partner in our efforts to battle the R-word. A couple of years ago Fox Filmed Entertainment was extremely compassionate and reactive when we raised objections to the repeated use of the R-word in a movie called “Miss March.” They went so far as to remove the word from the DVD release of the film. The FX Network added the R-word as one of only three words on their not fit for broadcast list, something Louis C.K. brought to light though sadly he wants to say the word. This means that if you happen to come across a replay of “Tropic Thunder” on FX, you won’t hear even one of the 17 times the movie used the R-word. Bravo! Recently, the Fox Network was even a partner in helping us get our “Not Acceptable” PSA on the air, they aired it during the season 2 finale of “Glee”! So we have great respect for the working relationship in which Fox has supported our efforts. Sadly, in this particular instance, someone erred.

The truth of the matter is, nowadays when the R-word shows up in movies like “The Descendants” there isn’t one person to blame, or to lash out against. That would be too easy. And fixable. There is always plenty of blame to go around if you like to play that game. I’ll even indulge you for a second in doing so by taking a look at this instance’s timeline from a broad distance.

The book on which the movie is based (and contained the original R-word dialogue) was published in 2008, meaning it was written a bit before then and definitely before the R-word hit the national media around the protests of “Tropic Thunder” in August of 2008. Fast forward three years and suffice to say the profile of the R-word has risen enough to make waves with a national public service announcement and compel someone as prominent as LeBron James to apologize for using it during a post game press conference of the NBA Finals. Yet in between those bookends of events a cerebral writer/director/producer who revels in telling the story of the common struggling man adapted the screenplay and vetted it multiple times with a team of writers, then one of the most philanthropic megastars of our time read the script without raising any red flags or voicing concerns, and lastly a major distribution company with a history of helping elevate the profile of this very cause saw no issue with pushing this out to the big screen.

My conclusion? We, as a community, are not yet doing our jobs well enough.

It sure feels like we’re doing a lot. It takes a lot every time you stop and interrupt someone who uses the R-word in front of you and correct them, then educate them. That’s exhausting in and of itself. It takes a lot to continue to report daily the hundreds of groups on Facebook who mock people with intellectual disabilities, the R-word being their go-to epithet while few understand why it is hate speech and discriminatory. Heck, it takes a lot to have read through this entire post!

None of it is enough, yet. Dialogue like this still being commonplace in pop culture makes this self-evident. We have to keep doing more. We have to keep sharing links. We have to keep writing to people who use the word and asking them to both stop and speak out and influence others to stop. We have to keep an understanding and open mind that most people simply don’t know about the hurt, the isolation, the struggle inherent with the R-word. We have to keep telling the story of why the R-word hurts our children, our siblings, our friends, our classmates, our colleagues, our neighbors who have special needs. People do listen. People do hear when you speak. So keep speaking. Raise the volume.

I think the important thing to understand in all of this is that our efforts shouldn’t be focused on vilifying any one person or corporate entity. Let’s not lose focus by playing a name game of Gigantic Celebrity said the R-word, let’s get him!! I think our movement has evolved well beyond this course of action and we need to focus energies on education and raising the right kind of awareness, not awareness for awareness sake. That said, Gigantic Celebrity or corporate entity should always be held accountable. My suggestion is simply that we are responsible in our call for accountability.

Our goals should be bigger than apologies. Our goals should include challenging R-word “offenders” to sit down and get to know someone with an intellectual disability. They should include legitimate seats for leaders in the intellectual disability community at influential tables alongside every other major player in entertainment, government and business.  They should include seamless inclusion in mainstream pop culture vehicles for actors and performers with intellectual disabilities.  These are the types of attitude changing goals we need to focus on in order to make an impact that will effect change over the coming years.

So what are some of actions you can take?

You can share this blog post on Facebook and Twitter.

You can visit another blogger friend Anna Theurer who is compiling contact info for Payne, Clooney and others at the bottom of her blog post and write letters or pick up the phone and express your feelings to them and use some of the goals above to challenge them to do better.

You can use the resources available on the R-word website to help you take action.

You can share any number of first hand video pleas to stop using the R-word, like this one, maybe this one, or even this one for those friends who “just don’t get it.”

You can visit our R-word resources page to find more helpful tips and materials to hold a pledge drive.

Simply put, the time for reading and passively moving on, hoping the issue will fix itself is over. You, me, WE, need to ACT.

77 thoughts on “A fair warning before you see “The Descendants”

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