The Problem with Sound of Metal

A stunning, beautiful movie about a musician’s sudden deafness, Sound of Metal is a lost opportunity for Deaf representation.

Imagine you’re going about your day, doing the things, seeing the people, chatting on your phone, listening to tunes and then BAM  – you’re deaf.

No sound, people moving their mouths and no comprehension on your part – loved ones terrorized by what’s happening and scrambling to figure out what they can do to communicate and absorb the shock. Confusion, despair, devastation.  Now imagine you’re a broke (but talented and passionate) musician trying to make it with your band and have all.this.pressure to hide it then finally getting swallowed up by the silence. That’s this movie. Director Darius Marder delivers it as phenomenally as getting doused by the car splash of a real gritty mud puddle.

That’s not the problem.

Sound of Metal gets a lot right, at first.

It can’t be the problem because Riz Ahmed is so believable as Ruben who is totally a hearing guy who’s having this mind-numbing experience in which he is fucking CUT OFF FROM HIS LIFE. His communication, his art and his livelihood. Life as he knows it is gone. This is trauma. NO way to prepare. He’s flipped out. Hell, I’m Deaf and I’m flipped out for him. How would you feel?  How would you react? Ahmed and Olivia Cooke who plays his girlfriend Lou are brilliant in these interactions.  Oscar-worthy performances (Mr. Ahmed was nominated).

A permanent change to your physical being is always traumatic. To me, this was less about being deaf and more about that experience of sudden loss. As a viewer, they made me feel all of this along with them. I really got it.

And then it doesn’t.

Then, a bunch of stuff happened that I didn’t get. Throughout this horrifying experience, Ruben’s just trying to deal.  Everyone is talking about him, and trying to get him some help.  He ends up being brought to an AA – style *rehab* house which is run by a late-deafened former military guy named Joe (played by Paul Raci) who uses American Sign Language like a native signer and all the fellow rehabber/housemates are Deaf and use ASL.

The part about it being a rehab and him being there is initially confusing until it’s mentioned that HE’s an addict. Ohhh. But he didn’t relapse. I guess they were afraid he was going to BUT it seems he qualifies for this place on that technicality and it’s an ideal place for him to be fully immersed in ASL and to bring some clarity and understanding to his very dark and confusing world-of-the-moment. Whew.

OK, so they use the rehab setting to get him to accept his deafness and that ASL is now his language. Or he better accept it like that anyway because he has nowhere else to go. Tough Love or Tough Noogies. Like it or Lump it, bud.

Does a place like this really exist? Or is it more like an idealistic boot camp? I’m leaning toward ALTERNATE REALITY.

I do get that we have Deaf rehab centers with staff fluent in ASL. There is no question in my mind that introducing ASL and living among  fluent/native users would be an amazing kind of wrap around support to teach someone how to “be deaf” after such a devastating loss, it feels very last-resort-y. Like the only reason he’s there is because he’s broke and he’s an addict.

Like most people who have suddenly gone blind, lost their arm or leg, suffered some sort of bodily trauma, he WANTS TO FIX HIS BODY. He tells Joe of his plans to pursue a Cochlear Implant who dismisses the idea as “expensive”.  Then, it’s like if you want it, you can’t get help from his rehab. Um, he’s not using drugs.  He’s seeking out something that may give him part of his life back THAT HE JUST LOST TWO SECONDS AGO.

An outdated view of Cochlear Implants

I get that this was to get him to face up to and accept his deafness, but the way the CI is treated as evil “drugs” doesn’t sit right. If he could use a hearing aid, would that be bad too? Come on.  He’s mourning what was lost and is doing research to see if he qualifies for a tool to get some of his hearing back. Jeez.

In reality, Cochlear Implants ARE expensive, but they are generally covered by insurance (usually after some red tape tango). And if someone doesn’t have insurance, they sometimes qualify for financial assistance or other charitable organizations.  Point is, Cis are not just rich people driving around who can afford to drop 30 Large on bionics. This bit was misleading.

I can’t help but feel like this script was written 30 years ago because it projects the divisive either/or attitudes about CIs vs ASL at the time.  Culturally Deaf folks were understandably concerned that CIs could eventually wipe out our language and culture. Now that so much more is known about them and their limits, combined approaches to deafness are more common.  I know plenty of people who have been Deaf ASL users all of their lives, get a CI as an adult and are not shunned like this. In fact, I don’t know anyone who is. It’s pretty normal now to see people with Cis at Deaf events. Over time, more people saw it for what it is: a TOOL.  It can’t replace typical hearing, culture, language, spirit. It can only enhance (or not help at all).

And .. lots of people are successfully using Cochlear Implants after a major hearing loss event and don’t know sign language.

But that’s a different story/movie, right?

We’ve come a long way, sorta

I’m just afraid THIS will be perceived as the current state of things for adults that get Cis and that someone who lost their hearing would actually fear the Deaf community and reject learning ASL. Such a widely distributed (and now Oscar-nominated) movie may be the only time someone in the “regular” hearing world comes across information like this. It’s got to be accurate.

People who live through a true hearing LOSS (someone NOT born with it) either suddenly or over time are absolutely grieving initially and need to feel the SUPPORT of the Deaf community, not expect to be treated like they’ve done something wrong. And this extends to parents with newly diagnosed children as well. That they’ll be cast out and not welcomed into sign classes/Deaf community if they opt for a CI for their child.

So I have a big problem with all of that.

But I don’t expect every movie to be a PSA. It doesn’t need come wrapped in a big BOW.

Anyway, it’s still not *the* problem.

The problem with Sound of Metal is a lack of representation.

The problem is, once again: Hollywood Misses the Boat.

The problem is the casting of Paul Raci as Joe – a hearing actor in a Deaf role.

Here was a beautiful opportunity lost. And I’m bummed out.

It’s nothing to do with Mr. Raci as an actor. In fact, I felt like he was believable in his role too (even if his character was a little far-fetched).

“Oh but what about Riz Ahmed?!”

Different story. The role of Ruben is someone who dives through an unimaginable personal physical trauma. The only thing he needs to KNOW about deafness going in is cutting the sound – plugging his ears. The rest is a complete discovery sequence based in his acting craft but his role is a hearing one through and through.  He is perfectly cast and SO believable. Had this story been set even a few years beyond this experience, yes I would say a Deaf actor would be needed. But at this point in his timeline, he’s still very much hearing… just without sound.

“Oh but Joe’s role… late deafened, talks well, native use of ASL AND looks the part/great actor – that’s a HARD CAST!”.

Maybe. But I’d be curious how far they got/who they saw for this role, AND if there were truly NO OTHER suitable actors for it, I’d have preferred to see the role altered to a CODA but I realize tons of other aspects were tied to his character also having hearing loss in addition to the cultural component. It just feels like the actor may have been chosen before the role fully fleshed out (it suits him that well). Then over time perhaps rationalized as A-OK because it’s a late-deafened character. Hm. No.

“Come on, what’s the big deal?”

Well, how many Deaf actors can most hearing people name? Marlee Matlin, right? In my opinion, she absolutely deserves her accolades.  She is a wonderful actress and I love that she works and stays relevant even 30+ years after winning the Oscar that made her famous. That is NO small feat and is a testament to her ethics and her talent. But she is ONE PERSON.

Theater buffs may even be able to name two more Deaf actors deemed big award-worthy: the late Phyllis Frelich and the lovely Lauren Ridloff who faithfully carries her small role here in Sound of Metal, but is way underutilized. Ms. Frelich won a Tony award in 1980 and Ms. Ridloff nominated in 2018, but in the case of all 3 awards  – IT’S FOR THE SAME ROLE.

Yep, the character Sarah in Children of a Lesser God brought these actors into mainstream orbit.  Nevermind what they accomplished before or after it, or the other Deaf talent out there that no one seems to know about, that’s the biggie hearing folks know about.

One role. That’s the representation we’ve gotten so far.

So it’s frustrating to see hearing actors get the few Deaf roles** out there. Mr. Raci is a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults). He knows this. He’s expecting to get some bunk about this. Here’s mine, Paul.

Like Mr. Ahmed, he was also nominated for an Oscar (in a supporting role).

Having said that, if you didn’t know anything about the truth of representation, Cochlear Implants and Deaf actors’ plights, hell YES it is an AMAZING movie. I did not move the whole 2+ hours, it was so watchable. The cinematography is GORGEOUS and the story is really incredible with highs and lows and as I’ve said, the actors are so, SO believable. I mean you REALLY feel for these characters. You’re totally on the journey with them.

But like all art that gets put out there with my community as the focus, a community which is so inherently a PART of me and gave me courage, confidence and LIFE, it feels VERY personal.

Deaf stories need Deaf talent in Deaf roles.

So I appreciate when directors/writers/art creators go to a true source in their research, not someone who knows all *about* me, but someone that actually knows what it feels like.

That always makes the BEST story.

**2022 Update: Since the writing of this article, Deaf actor, Troy Kotsur has WON multiple mainstream awards including an Academy Award for his role in the movie CODA, which also won Best Picture! Well deserved! 




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