In Hollywood, diversity and inclusion have become a frequent topic of discussion over the past few years. There has been a push from both within and outside the industry to shed light on the stories of the marginalized and underrepresented, including people of different races and genders. Though there is still much room for growth, these communities have shone brighter in films over the years, and Hollywood has become better and more interesting because of it.
However, one community has been kept mostly in the dark: people with disabilities. Though there are a few exceptions (ie. ABC shows Speechless and Life Goes On), the true stories and lives of those with disabilities are rarely depicted, and even rarer are these characters played by an actual person with a disability.
Enter: The Peanut Butter Falcon. An independent film starring Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, and newcomer Zack Gottsagen, The Peanut Butter Falcon tackles the task of portraying a person with special needs without shying away from deconstructing stereotypes and depicting both the challenges and triumphs that come with having a disability. But at the same time, this isn’t a movie about disability. As Kristen Lopez perfectly explains in her Forbes article about the movie, The Peanut Butter Falcon “goes beyond being a disabled story and is a story about people.” It is a story of adventure, friendship, and personal growth – and the main character happens to have Down syndrome.
This movie opens a door for people with disabilities to become active members of the film industry, not simply existing on the outskirts as minor characters or being portrayed by “typical” actors. Its impact is crucial not just for inclusion in Hollywood, but in society as a whole. Zack is a great example of someone who didn’t let his disabilities or human limits stop him from pursuing his dreams, and everyone can learn from his passion and perseverance – whether you have a disability or not. Additionally, he shows the rest of the world that people with disabilities are not only capable of being active members of society, but are necessary contributors to it. When watching interviews with cast and crew alike, it is clear that Zack has a lasting impact on whoever is around him.
As LaBeouf explains, Zack approaches every relationship with openness and sincerity, an attitude that is clearly contagious to anyone who is lucky enough to be his friend. He isn’t inspiring simply because he has a disability, but because he is a person who is so forcefully and genuinely himself that people can’t help but be changed by knowing him. They recognize his humanity and treat him as such. This is what inclusion is all about.
Though The Peanut Butter Falcon has made incredible strides in giving a voice to a community that has been kept silent for too long, our fight for inclusion is far from over. While we should all support and promote the movie (if you haven’t yet, go see it at your local theater!), inclusion is best spread through practice. This is achieved not by coddling people with disabilities, but stepping out of the way and allowing them to tell their stories in their own voice. The world will be a brighter place because of it.
For more commentary on The Peanut Butter Falcon, check out our latest podcast, “Why Everyone Should See “The Peanut Butter Falcon” & How It Can Change The Way We See Special Needs In Movies.”