Netflix thriller Run strikes an unlikely blow for disability rights

Maybe we won’t have to wait quite so long for the next wheelchair-using woman to be portrayed by someone who actually uses a wheelchair in a thriller, says James Moore

Saturday 10 April 2021 10:44 BST
‘Run is a demonstration of what can be done’
‘Run is a demonstration of what can be done’ (Netflix)

Prior to the release of Run – which recently dropped on Netflix here in the UK – there hadn’t been a Hollywood thriller featuring a female wheelchair-using character played by a wheelchair-using female actor in more than 70 years. The last time this happened was in the 1948 film noir Sign of the Ram.

Think about that for a moment.

It helps to explain why an open letter protesting against prejudice and discrimination towards disabled talent in Hollywood, signed by more than 80 actors and entertainment industry professionals – including the likes of Amy Poehler, Naomie Harris and Jessica Barden – is so timely.

Of course, we’ve seen wheelchairs since Ram. But standard practice is to have an able-bodied actor play someone with a disability. Here’s a chair, sit yourself down. Maybe we can get you an Oscar nod if the critics think your performance as the suffering disabled soul is sufficiently inspirational.

It isn’t just wheelchairs, either. Need a blind person? Give the performer a pair of dark glasses and a stick. Deaf? Attach a mock hearing aid, roll cameras! And so it goes.

Perhaps the most jarring recent incidence of this sort of thing came with Come as You Are, a comedy that was supposed to bust myths surrounding disability but didn’t trouble itself with casting disabled actors for any of the lead roles. That film’s positive reception showed that most of the critics completely missed the point.

Run is a demonstration of what can be done. It sits in the thriller genre, although you could make a case that it’s a horror. Kiera Allen plays Chloe, a homeschooled teen waiting on a college application, with an over-protective mother played by Sarah Paulson. Chloe starts to question her situation when she sees one of her medications appears to have been prescribed to Paulson’s character, not to her.

It isn’t hard to see the direction of travel. The casting and performance of Paulson, the star of the Netflix drama Ratched, should be enough of a clue for most people.

But while it telegraphs the claustrophobic white knuckle ride, with obvious nods to Misery, that emerges (so I’m not spoiling anything here) some of the things it does along the way are almost unique.

For a start, Allen’s character has agency. She's not the passive victim there to evoke our sympathy that Hollywood likes to serve up when it puts people in wheelchairs.

She does action stuff. She smashes windows. She crawls around on a rooftop. She hurls her chair down the stairs then follows it.

Run makes use of her disability, sure, but it does it so in an unusually accurate way, thanks in no small part to Allen.

She elevates what may have been a by the numbers thriller without her. But director Aneesh Chaganty deserves credit too.

I found the way the film manages to show what it feels like to have medical vulnerabilities and find oneself in someone else’s power as a result acutely disturbing. Because I’ve been there.

It took me back to a time in hospital when I couldn’t move myself out of bed and desperately needed pain relief only to get shouted at by a nurse for daring to press the call button in the early hours. That incident made night times viscerally frightening.

Chloe’s journey was thus chilling for me, but also cathartic because she is depicted fighting back, and doing so very effectively.

There are some other nice touches, which stem from the film’s savvy approach.

There is an incidence where Chloe, whose multiple medical conditions include something that looks like diabetes but isn’t described as such, goes for the chocolate in the shopping bag when her mother is distracted.

And yeah, as a type one autoimmune diabetic, been there, done that, but never seen it on film.

At one point she pushes her way out of a movie theatre, and if you watch closely can see she’s labouring, because it’s damned hard work to get up steep, carpeted inclines. Again, been there, done that.

She even uses her disability to her advantage, playing it up to cut in line in the midst of an escape attempt. And yeah…

Nor does the movie make any excuses for the behaviour of Paulson’s character, of the type you frequently see when carers are depicted by the entertainment industry.

The film could be said to strike one of the best blows for representation since … since … since … I guess A Quiet Place? Its director John Krasinski had to fight for the casting of a deaf actor to play the role of a deaf character and was richly rewarded for doing so. Millicent Simmonds’ performance is one of the highlights of the movie.

Unfortunately, her limited appearances since then suggest she’s not been overrun with the work she deserves. I fear the same may prove true of Allen, despite the fact that Run was a Hulu hit in the US and was showing in the Netflix UK top 10 when I watched it.

Perhaps the letter will help change that.

Maybe we won’t have to wait quite so long for the next time a wheelchair-using woman is portrayed by someone who actually uses a wheelchair in a thriller.

Frankly, it would be a disgrace if it takes seven years, let alone 70, but the fact that the letter had to be written in the first place shows the entertainment industry, and yes the media (I see you film critics), still has an awful long way to go.

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