“In Darkness” roundtable: How blindness is used as an abled acting choice

Illustration of Natalie Dormer as Sofia in 'In Darkness.' Behind her is a bokeh-esque background simulating blindness

Natalie Dormer as Sofia. Illustration/Monique Jones

In Darkness should be another feather in Natalie Dormer’s cap. The Game of Thrones actress wrote and starred in the thriller as the film’s main character Sofia, a blind musician who hears a murder committed in the apartment upstairs from hers which “sends her down a dark path into London’s gritty criminal underworld.”

“So what’s the problem?” you might be asking. The problem is that in the world of representation, disabled representation is often the least thought of as needing attention, in my opinion. There’s an overabundance of discussion on racial and sexual representation, but sometimes, even within the same conversations, there’s a lack of focus on the fact that disabled people of all stripes have to deal with some horrible stuff when it comes to little to no representation in popular culture. What’s probably the least of all discussed is that abled actors playing disabled actors is offensive, especially since there are plenty of disabled actors who would love to show what they’ve got in Hollywood. In short, couldn’t a blind actress play Sofia?

On top of this, salt was poured in the wound by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), who praised Dormer’s work with them to make the role as faithful as possible.

The outrage RNIB elicited from disabled audiences prompted the chair of the organization, Ellie Southwood, to write a blog post on The Huffington Post UK addressing the issue.

I completely agree that it’s high time we saw more people with sight loss on TV and in films, taking on roles behind the camera as well as in front of it.

RNIB weren’t involved in the casting decision for the film. On many occasions, they have advised producers and researchers to cast blind or partially-sighted actors. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of talent out there!

But RNIB was right to engage with Natalie to give her the advice she asked for to help her portray the character, which I know she was keen to do sensitively and accurately. …RNIB worked closelsy with Natalie and several blind and partially-sighted people, as well as eye health experts, over many months to give Natalie the advice and insight she was looking for, which included being shown how to use a cane, by a partially-sighted person.

The film hasn’t done well at all with critics, garnering only a 44 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Speaking in terms of quality, In Darkness has been revealed to be intensely formulaic and dull. As Linda Marric of HeyUGuys wrote:

“Overall, the film’s downfall resides in its lack of plausible plot and its inability to flow naturally, which in turn reduces the whole thing into a barely coherent mess. While both writers do their best to inject some suspense into its hugely predictable plot, the pair is ultimately let down by their extensive use of hackneyed thriller tropes which in the end betray their inexperience.”

However, in Geoffrey Macnab’s review for The Independent, there is also emphasis on how the movie’s premise–a blind woman who is in danger–doesn’t work, writing, “This initially promising blind-woman-in-peril thriller soon loses its way.”

In Darkness would surely have worked better with a tighter, clearer storyline. The scenes in which the blind woman is alone in her apartment, unaware there is an intruder behind her, are far creepier than those in which she gets caught up in violence on the London streets or has to confront traumatic memories of the Balkan wars.”

Macnab’s analysis touches on another issue surrounding films featuring blind protagonists in danger–should a film featuring a blind (usually female) protagonist in peril be a “promising” story to watch? Should we be excited to see a blind woman whose life is at risk, or is it just another form of torture/fear porn at the expense of the real life people the blind character represents? Will there ever be a time when a blind character, a blind woman in particular, isn’t portrayed as helpless?

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There’s a lot of contention over this film, its lead, and RNIB’s decision to support the film. I wanted to know what others thought about it, so I interviewed Alice Wong, founder of the Disability Visibility Project, and Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, a writer, editor, dramaturge, public speaker and disability consultant. It’s also important to know that Sjunneson-Henry is a blind person working in the arts and culture industry. I wanted to get Wong and Sjunneson-Henry’s view on In Darkness and how they feel about RNIB’s decision to back the movie. Overall, the conversation focused on one thing–the tolerance for abled actors in disabled roles must end in order for more in-depth and nuanced performances of disabled characters, in this case blind and visually-impaired characters–to flourish in the hands of disabled actors.

What are your first thoughts about “In Darkness”?

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry: When I first saw the trailer I was concerned, because yet again an actor without a disability was playing a blind character, and again, the disability binary was being heavily employed.

Alice Wong: I like Natalie Dormer especially in Game of Thrones as Margaery Tyrell. When I saw the trailer for In Darkness I gave a heavy sigh of disappointment. First, it’s another example of cripping up, a non-disabled actor playing a disabled character, and it’s a suspense thriller involving a blind character in danger who must outwit the non-disabled villains. There’s are quite a few blind women-in-distress in films (Wait Until Dark, Jennifer 8, Blink). Some of them fight back and survive while others are saved or aided by a non-disabled hero. Usually there are lots of suspenseful scenes where the women are terrorized…because they are blind and in danger. The blindness functions as a way to build the tension and highlight the conflict in these cat-and-mouse relationships.

Why do you feel the film is a disservice to blind and visually impaired viewers?

Wong: It’s not for me to say since I am not blind or visually impaired. I would say it’s a continuation of disabled characters played by non-disabled people that is neither seen as problematic or worth doing something about by people in the industry with power. Blind activists protested films Blindness and Mr. Magoo because of their portrayals of blind people and I’d look to the blind community for critiques of this film.

Sjunneson-Henry: For one, the film reinforces what I refer to above: the disability binary. By having the main character be faking blindness, the narrative continues to suggest that there’s only one way to be blind, and that blindness is easily faked. This puts blind people at risk, and also, reinforces stereotypes. As a blind person who can still see out of one eye, I find myself often “performing” being blinder than actually am when strangers try to test my sight, as a way to keep myself safe.

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RNIB has supported this film and helped Natalie Dormer prepare for the role (a role that she wrote for herself). What do you think about RNIB’s actions and do they harm or help the film? Also, what do you think about Dormer writing this type of role for herself?

Wong: I was surprised at RNIB’s word choice in their Tweet about the film. They called Dormer’s portrayal ‘refreshing.’ Maybe it was refreshing because she sought advice from them but people already should consult with experts when conducting research. There’s nothing refreshing or game changing in maintaining the status quo. Let’s call this film for what it is: a star vehicle designed by Dormer to give herself a great role which is entirely her prerogative. Just don’t sell it as an advancement in authentic blind representation in media.

Sjunneson-Henry: I really wish that Dormer had thought about hiring a blind writer (like myself) to work with her. There are so many blind and visually impaired writers and actors hoping fo a chance, and Dormer could have given someone an opportunity to change their lives. I think RNIB also missed an opportunity to showcase what blind people can really do, and instead gave an abled person a voice ahead of a disabled one.

There will be some who feel like RNIB’s support means people are overreacting. What would you say to those people? 

Sjunneson-Henry: I would point out that I cannot think of a single blind woman character, played by a blind woman in the canon of film that I have seen. I would say that it hurts people to continually see themselves shoved aside in order for an able bodied actor to play a “difficult” role, when that difficult role is our lives. I would remind people that it is hard to live in a world where you never see yourself reflected as anything other than wanting.

Wong: RNIB is free to support whoever they want. However, in this day and age when marginalized groups are demanding, not asking for opportunities in entertainment, why should it be so strange or surprising to expect the same response from the disability community? People are passionate about culture and unhesitant at pointing out the disparities that exist. I’m tired of the crumbs when it comes to disability representation in film. We deserve better and we deserve it all.

What are ways a film about a blind or visually impaired person can be respectful of its audience?

Sjunneson-Henry: I would love to see movies that are about blind people doing exciting things. i would be so excited to see a thriller with a blind character in the action. [T]he stories about blindness being faked, the stories about disability being cured, those stories reinforce harmful stereotypes about what it is like to live with a disability. I hope Hollywood can do better. ♦