Artist and author Riva Lehrer in Code of the Freaks
Artist and author Riva Lehrer in Code of the Freaks

“It’s all the same movie,” says writer Susan Nussbaum in the opening moments of the 2020 documentary Code of the Freaks. “It’s all inspiration.” A Chicago-based collaboration between Nussbaum, director Salome Chasnoff, and scholars Alyson Patsavas and Carrie Sandahl, Code of the Freaks shines a searing light on ableism in mainstream film. During the age of the #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo movements, when Hollywood’s discriminatory practices are coming under increased scrutiny, Code of the Freaks gives much-needed voice to the myriad ways disabled people’s lives are directly impacted by these stories. The documentary takes its title from the infamous 1932 film Freaks, in which members of a band of circus “freaks” adhere to a simple code: “Offend one and you offend them all.” Code of the Freaks runs with this motif, embracing the subversive power of the bond found among the titular “freaks” in one of the very few films ever to portray an “outsider collective” of disabled people. Featuring a diverse cast of disabled writers, actors, activists, and other commentators, Code of the Freaks not only taxonomizes in striking detail the long list of Hollywood’s ableist sins but also defiantly does what Hollywood often refuses to do: tell unique, fully human stories.

Code of the Freaks exposes Hollywood’s homogeneity as it deconstructs trope after trope, clip after clip repeating the same scenarios: A blind white woman in a bathtub is stalked by a serial killer (Jennifer 8, See No Evil). A disfigured villain plots against a world that rejects his ugliness (The Phantom of the Opera, Wonder Woman). A mentally disabled Black man becomes a moral guide to the white, nondisabled characters (The Green Mile, Radio). “[Movies] function, for a lot of people, as the place where they learn about disability,” Patsavas remarks onscreen, “and then they think they know . . . what disabled people themselves want. And that is what’s so dangerous.” This misapprehension can have horrific implications, such as when a disabled character’s institutionalization or death is cast as a “happy ending” (Million Dollar Baby, The Elephant Man).

All these tropes coalesce into the “same story”: the inauthentic “inspiration porn” narrative. Sometimes the disabled character “overcomes” their disability, sometimes they are cured, and sometimes they simply inspire the nondisabled characters (and audience members). This narrative culminates yearly on Oscar night, when abled actors triumphantly accept their awards for playing disabled characters. In the documentary’s climactic sequence, Code of the Freaks intersplices clips of the many iterations of this pattern as orchestral music swells in ironic grandeur. “In a way,” Nussbaum says, “it’s like a cure.”

When I ask some of the filmmakers behind Code of the Freaks about their take on this year’s Oscar nominees, Chasnoff points out that this year a significant number of the Best Picture nominees for the Oscars “once again” directly portray disability with limited involvement from actually disabled people. Anthony Hopkins won Best Actor for playing a man with Alzheimer’s disease in The Father, and multi-nominee Sound of Metal, a story about a drummer losing his hearing, stars a hearing actor. Sound of Metal does feature some deaf actors, but the story oversimplifies the debate about cochlear implants, effectively “flattening,” in Sandahl’s words, the diversity of opinion within the deaf community.

In addition to these overt portrayals, Patsavas points out that Hollywood’s power in shaping how we see disability can also obscure our ability to recognize it when it is not sensationalized. For instance, in Best Picture winner Nomadland and nominee Promising Young Woman, trauma and mental illness are folded into layered, multifaceted contexts rather than singled out as “disability stories.” Even conditions of indie production are affected by the narrowness of Hollywood’s vision: Chasnoff explains that Code of the Freaks struggled for funding for many years “because we didn’t want to make ‘a hero’s journey.’ We wanted to depict a community.”

In that spirit, Code of the Freaks defies easy solutions. Reception to the documentary, the creators report, has included anger. “People are shocked that we’re critiquing movies that are just beloved,” Sandhal says. “We don’t present a progress narrative.” Patsavas adds, “We are telling a horror story of the impact of these images on disabled people’s lives . . . and, much like some horror films, we leave the audience feeling terrible, and that’s the intent, that frustration of a happy ending.” And so even as the Academy seems, self-consciously, to be expanding its representational scope in some ways, Code of the Freaks demands better, asserting that the real “code of the freaks” is a community that demands truth from its stories.   v