Pili Films, 2013
📷 : Licensed from Shutterstock
Movies and TV shows with low-key characters
Movies and TV shows with heart, positive vibes, and warm messages
Too often, films starring characters with disabilities make the disabilities themselves the lead characters in the story. I think of Oscar-winning films like Children of a Lesser God. Released in 1986, the movie stars Marlee Matlin, who is hearing impaired, as a staff member at The Governor Kittridge School for the Deaf. Her character, Sarah, falls in love with James, the new speech teacher played by William Hurt. The setting combined with the contrast in their abilities to speak and hear helped center deafness as the story’s focal point and allowed it to take on a life of its own.
The same can be said of My Left Foot, another Oscar-winning film in which Daniel Day Lewis starred as a man with cerebral palsy who learned to use his left foot to write and accomplish everyday tasks. Set in early 1930s Ireland and based on a true story, the film opens soundlessly with a scene of a man’s left foot struggling to place a vinyl record onto a turntable, and then gingerly setting the needle down to start the music. Released in 1989, the film chronicled “Christy’s” struggle to be recognized as someone who was limited only by his physical inabilities, as his cognitive abilities were sharp and intact.
The timing of these movies helps explain why disabilities were centered in the stories. Mainstreaming, or moving people with disabilities from exclusive institutions into regular schools and workplaces, was promoted in the mid-1980s. The assimilation expanded the breadth of diversity in these settings. It broadened the exposure, awareness, and social lives of many young people, making them more accommodating and receptive to people with varying needs, and who sometimes looked and behaved in ways different than they were used to. Entertainment should reflect this by producing films that are inclusive without aiming to center the disability. GriGris (pronounced Gre’ gre) is one of those films.
In some ways, GriGris reminds me of the 1977 movie, Saturday Night Fever. Instead of “Tony Manero” dancing to the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever” and “You Should Be Dancing,” “GriGris,” the main character, moves to the sounds of Wasis DIOP’s blend of jazz and pop. The dancer even takes off his shirt and shows his abs for good measure!
Set in Chad, GriGris stars Souleymane Démé as a quietly resourceful 25-year-old who, despite his bad leg, is a popular dancer in the local night club where he performs on weekends for extra money. Indeed, everyone in his rural village has a side hustle, or two, or three. Those with a high-risk tolerance for getting caught by the authorities have “employees,” and drive cars rather than walk the red, dry, dusty roads to get around.
A dedicated son committed to his parents, GriGris encounters trouble with Moussa, played by Cyril Gueï (Hitman, Un flic), a major hustler in his village, while engaging in a side hustle to help his family. But he meets Mimi, played by Anaïs Monory (Overdrive, L’Invite’), a young woman who steals his heart. Unfazed by his physical disability, she is impressed with his dancing skills, appreciative of his displays of chivalry, and adoring of his upper body. She, however, has secrets and sharing them could put their relationship at risk. What kind of man is GriGris and how will he respond, particularly given that his own life is in peril?
Unlike the aforementioned movies from the ‘80s, which can be argued as paving the way for featuring people with disabilities in film, GriGris does not make the main character’s disability the lead in the show. Instead, it focuses on a man’s humanity, character, and desires. This may or may not speak to how far disability inclusiveness has come in film though. At best, it can probably be described as still in the process of mainstreaming. For example, The Upside, a 2017 film starring Bryan Cranston as a person living with quadriplegia, is a bright, upbeat, and uplifting comedy-drama; yet, “Philip’s” disability is very central to the story. On the other hand, the cast of the 2021 series, Mare of Easttown, includes Kassie Mundhenk, an actress with Down syndrome. She is simply presented in the show as just another integral member of her family. The latter should be the goal.
GriGris follows the contemporary inclusive model for film. It provides entertainment cloaked in drama, love, and suspense rather than a story about what it means to be disabled. Such stories and conversations are important for enhancing our understanding about the challenges of living with a disability. Some space, though, should be set aside to present people with physical and cognitive disabilities just living their lives like everyone else–with a little bit of love, mystery, occasional complications, and yes, fun!