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March 2005
Better Dead Than Disabled?

By Lawrence Carter-Long

Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby and the Spanish language film The Sea Inside (Mar Adentro) may be winning round after round of critical accolades, including several Academy Awards, but critical support is getting a not-so-subtle beat down by increasing controversy over the common theme shared by both films. 

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen them and don’t want to know how crucial plot twists turn out, read no further.

Both films center on the controversial issue of assisted suicide or so-called “mercy killing” of people with disabilities. 

Let’s start off by going a couple of rounds with Million Dollar Baby. MDB chronicles the fictional tale of tenacious female pugilist (ie. boxer) Maggie Fitzgerald (played by Hilary Swank) as she struggles to convince curmudgeonly trainer Frankie (Clint Eastwood who also directed the film) to coach her. Ol’ Frankie puts up a valiant fight, but eventually gets knocked out by Maggie’s never-say-die commitment to her goal, and gains himself a surrogate daughter in the process. After a sucker punch late in the second act leaves Maggie paralyzed, the drama awkwardly shifts away from the boxing ring to a hospital ward where Maggie finds herself facing an unexpectedly bleak future, not as a boxing champion as she expected, but rather as a quadriplegic. When Maggie decides she’d rather be dead than disabled, Frankie has to face-off against his toughest opponent yet, the moral question: Should I help her die?

Much of the media attention on the controversy surrounding the movie has focused thus far on right-wing opposition to the ethical debate over “assisted suicide.” A debate, which while important, conveniently sidesteps the much thornier issue, the “I’d rather die than use a wheelchair” mentality that, in the disability rights community at least, sparked the uproar over MDB in the first place.

Eastwood has been quoted as saying, “I never thought about the political side of this when making the film.” Apparently he somehow failed to see why disabled people would be hurt and offended by the movie.

Now, it isn’t like Clint lacks personal experience with disability rights issues. In fact, when looked at historically, one could easily assume the actor who played Dirty Harry is gunning for disabled folks. For example, in 2000, rather than make simple changes to his swanky California guest resort in order to make it more accessible for wheelchair users, Eastwood instead opted to fly to Washington, DC to testify on Capitol Hill in support of efforts to weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act—a landmark law passed in 1989 ensuring civil rights for disabled people.

As a politically active disabled person (who, I must admit, wishes to remain alive) I feel a responsibility to help ol’ Clint and his brethren out here, “Hey, Dirty Harry, wake up!” Your inability to consider any issue but potential box office receipts is a big part of the problem. 

Cultural Critique
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating censorship. Cinema, when done well, has always sparked controversy. I’m simply suggesting that it’s time for a bit more sensitivity. Like Birth of A Nation—a racist retelling of the Reconstruction era—Eastwood has every right to offend people from all over the political spectrum, but MDB plays more to the largely irrational fears of what having a disability might be like rather than the reality of living one’s life with a disability. This is a crucial point largely missed thus far by both film critics and newspaper columnists.

Does anyone honestly believe films like MDB would be embraced by otherwise left-leaning culture warriors like Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd and Roger Ebert if they alienated other, more politically powerful minority groups like gays or people of color?

Is the notion of preferring to die rather than choosing to live with a disability so commonplace it merits no reflection by able-bodied movie directors, film critics and audiences?

Lastly, are the feelings of real, live disabled people so irrelevant in our culture they aren’t even considered when movies like MDB are made? No one can say for certain, but these are questions well worth asking. 

Friends Like These
Much like his character in The Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman’s character, Eddie ‘Scrap-Iron’ Dupris, serves as the narrator of MDB. Freeman plays Eastwood’s right hand man, a washed-up boxer watching events unfold from ringside as he offers the movie-going audience clues to place the plot into context. At one point his character relates, “If there’s any magic in boxing it’s the magic of fighting battles beyond endurance. Beyond cracked ribs, ruptured kidneys and detached retinas...”

Dupris also states, “To make a fighter you’ve gotta strip ‘em down to bare wood. You can’t just tell ‘em to forget everything they know... Then you’ve gotta show ‘em over and over and over again...’til they think they were born that way.”

Too bad he neglected to tell Maggie and Frank. Pulling the plug on Maggie’s future illustrates they clearly missed Boxing 101 class the day that particular lesson was taught.

Early on, when Eastwood’s character tells Swank he only indulges her presence at his gym out of pity, she snaps back, “Don’t you say that if it’s not true! I don’t want charity. I don’t want favors. I want a trainer!” She then bolsters her case by telling Frankie she trained for over four years to become a fighter.

But how much training does Maggie get in living with a disability? You guessed it: zero.

Before Swank has a chance to adjust to her injury and answer the bell for round two of her newest battle, Dupris puts an end to Frankie’s quandary by giving him the okay to throw in the towel on Maggie’s future. “She had no chance,” Dupris says to Frankie plaintively. “People die every day thinking ‘I never got my shot.’ If she died today thinking, ‘I did okay,’ I could rest with that.”

With friends like these, Maggie seems to have little chance at all.

If Frankie and Dupris love Maggie as they seem to, why is it neither of them have the presence of mind to say, “Maggie, you’re in shock. Give it a while and let’s see how you adjust”?

Instead, Frankie’s opposition to Maggie’s deathwish is portrayed not as a moral stand, but rather a moral failure; a weakness. By overcoming his hesitance to do Maggie in as she wishes, Frankie and Maggie are cast as tragic heroes. Eastwood’s character does the difficult deed, but ends up emotionally devastated by the ordeal.

It is probably foolish to expect much more. When you have Dirty Harry knocking off the heroine from Boys Don’t Cry with the endorsement of the kindly fellow who drove Miss Daisy, any attempt at nuance is almost certain to be lost. All audiences are likely to take home is the message, “Sure, killing Maggie is regrettable, but really...what else could he do?” 

The sobering truth is plenty. It may not make for heart-wrenching cinema, but after dealing with the initial trauma severe injuries like those experienced by Maggie most certainly cause, the vast majority of disabled folks (Christopher Reeve is but one notable example) do not wish to be killed.

Old Dog
“The biggest problem with Million Dollar Baby is...some of the audience will be newly disabled people, their family members and friends, swept along in the critically acclaimed emotion that the kindest response to someone struggling with the life changes brought on by a severe injury is, after all, to kill them,” charges Diane Coleman, of the disability rights group, Not Dead Yet.

John Hockenberry, a correspondent for NBC News who is himself a wheelchair user, blasts the skewed lens of Eastwood’s film on the website, by writing, “Eastwood’s poetic hemlock avoids the inconvenient truth that a female athlete outside of basketball and perhaps professional mud-wrestling has virtually no opportunity to make a living in America. That might make a more plausible reason for suicide than the rationale Million Dollar Baby supplies...Hollywood loves this disabled suicide plot and Eastwood is hardly the only director to be enthralled with what might be called the crip ex machina theatrical convention.”

There is perhaps no greater testament to Hockenberry’s claim than the other cripple-killing film currently in wide release, The Sea Inside.

While the criticism leveled at The Sea Inside pales in comparison to that received by MDB thus far, it addresses the issue with even more gusto. Sea Inside chronicles the story of Spanish poet Ramon Sampedro as he campaigns for his own assisted suicide. Paralyzed following a diving accident in 1968, Sampedro committed illegal suicide in 1998—with the help of friends—by sipping cyanide while a video camera recorded his death. Unlike Maggie’s idylic death, where she simply goes to sleep much like her daddy’s crippled “old dog,” Ramon’s came after 15 agonizing minutes. The most vehement opponent to Sampedro’s suicide campaign is portrayed as a religious zealot with no credibility.

A Good Thing
While I am generally of the belief that the only real power we have in our lives is the decision to live or die—basically everything else is either taxed or legislated—the importance of having some awareness of what viable choices exist for living a fulfilling life with a disability cannot be overstated.

Sadly, in these films viable options are hardly explored at all. Except for one notable instance, Sampedro stubbornly refuses to let a wheelchair provide him with a level of the very independence he claims to miss. If he can’t walk, he might as well lie around in bed and complain. The depiction of Maggie bedridden in a rehab center, losing her leg to untreated bedsores (where the hell was the nursing staff?) with no mobility, no support and no future, is as maudlin as it is difficult to believe.

Sure, disabled folks get some of the best parking spaces, but when weighed against horror stories like these, even the actor who played Superman doesn’t have much of a fighting chance.

Ragged Edge editor Mary Johnson suggests movies like Million Dollar Baby and The Sea Inside are made periodically because of a lack of substantive dialogue about the reality about living with a severe disability within popular culture. “These movies, more than anything, emerge out of that lack of understanding,” wrote Johnson. “Movies like these will continue to be made until people are given a way to understand that it is all right to live as a disabled person. Not heroic, not tragic—simply all right.”

When the fight of our life becomes more than a metaphor, how do we fight it?

Greater understanding can only come if we, as a society, are willing to pull the plug on the destructive myths which characterize life with a severe disability as one unworthy of living. This seems especially important while there is a war raging in the Middle East sending thousands of soldiers home who find themselves unexpectedly, unwillingly drafted into the disabled community. There will be few simple answers to the difficult questions we’ll face. Unless we’re willing to kill everyone who gets shot or accidentally breaks their neck, there’ll be no Hollywood endings either.

That, for once, looks to be a good thing.

Lawrence Carter-Long is a Satya Consulting Editor.




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