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“Rogue One:” A satisfying, sad chapter in the “Star Wars” franchise [SPOILERS]

Lucasfilm/Disney

SPOILERS ABOUND!

Synopsis (Lucasfilm): From Lucasfilm comes the first of the Star Wars standalone films, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” an all-new epic adventure. In a time of conflict, a group of unlikely heroes band together on a mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, the Empire’s ultimate weapon of destruction. This key event in the Star Wars timeline brings together ordinary people who choose to do extraordinary things, and in doing so, become part of something greater than themselves.

Monique’s review: What a film.

Maybe it’s that time of the month and I’m being hormonal, or maybe the film was just that sad. But it’s about 48 hours after having seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and I’m still reeling from the ending. AUGH! MY HEART!

The opening crawl to Episode 4: A New Hope states that rebel spies steal the Death Star plans, but it doesn’t say that they die! I haven’t gotten over it yet.

It also doesn’t help that the princess of all space, Carrie Fisher has died. Can 2016 give us a break yet?!

The good:

What I loved about the film is that we got to see what Star Wars is like outside of the confines of the traditional crawl, so to speak. I, for one, liked that the film decided to forgo the crawl and throw us right into the movie. It makes sense, since this is the first story that that kickstarts the entire franchise, but it’s also a bold move that takes the franchise further into the future. We’re in the 21st century with Star Wars now; it needs to go beyond what the older fans expect. Now that we’ve got younger fans, the franchise has to use the 21st century modernization to enthrall and keep them. Also, the lack of a crawl added a freshness that a new fan like me appreciated. It made me feel like I was watching a sci-fi action film that didn’t chastise me for not having grown up with the Star Wars franchise.

Let’s talk about the cast. Overall, the cast is 8/15 POC (or should I say MOC), which is hefty for a blockbuster film, especially since they are all main characters. This number, I should say, is if you count the voice of James Earl Jones as Darth Vader (the actual figure of Darth Vader, as usual, is played by another actor, this time Spencer Wilding) There are only five main characters who are women, and one of them, Jyn’s mother Lyra (Valene Kane), gets killed early in the film and the other, young Princess Leia, is portrayed by a body double (Ingvild Deila) with a CGI’d face. Aside from Jyn, the most prominent woman in the film is Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), a senator from A New Hope who is mostly used in this film to give gravitas with her face and clothes, but not much more. If anything, she seemed to act as a loose replacement for Leia in the majority of this film, almost as if she were a preliminary sketch for the actual Leia character, down to her white robes.

(Interesting fashion note: It appears that this film is setting up the idea that style trends are a thing in the Star Wars universe–White is a color that seems to have been popular up until the construction and usage of the Death Star. Perhaps the lack of white after A New Hope suggests that the innocence of the galaxy before the Death Star had been lost.)

Why is counting the amount of non-white people and women important? Because in Star Wars films of the past, the cast has been mostly white, with only a few POC actors as minor rebel pilots who quickly get killed. Having people of all racial, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds gives Star Wars the legitimacy it needs as both a contemporary film in a multicultural world and as a space opera itself; why does science fiction/fantasy just have be a place for white people, when we all would like to live in a galaxy far, far away?

Lucasfilm/Disney

The character portrayals themselves are great despite being a little truncated. Was it because the screenwriter knew we’d only be seeing these characters in one film? At any rate, the characters’ collective fates make their performances even more riveting and haunting. Felicity Jones held down the movie as Jyn Erso, further establishing the notion that women can successfully helm “boys’ movies” and bring in the big bucks. I also thought Diego Luna played Cassian Andor convincingly, but I must point out that like Mon Mothma, his character seemed like a sketch of an early Han Solo, what with his own “who shot first” moment early in the movie (although they don’t show a close-up on Cassian’s hand pulling the trigger, we know he’s the guy who shot his informant in cold blood).

Cassian, though, provides one of the most satisfying character arguments I’ve seen in film in a long time. Surprisingly, the film delves into privilege when discussing Jyn’s sudden turn to the resistance after years of not caring about who’s in power. Jyn’s turn comes after her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) dies. Even though Galen dies due to his involvement with the Empire—he was the chief architect of the Death Star, who defected, then later came back to work on the project in order to place a well-hidden weak spot—Jyn blames Cassian, who was ordered by the resistance to kill Galen. It’s when Jyn offends Cassian’s honor as it relates to fighting for the resistance that Cassian decides to tell her the ugly truth about herself. Jyn, he said, was picking and choosing when she wanted to fight for the resistance, whereas he had been fighting for it since he was a small child. While Jyn found it easy to take up the resistance mantle after years of running, Cassian and others like him had devoted their entire lives to the cause. Jyn had no right to assert she automatically knew more about fighting the good fight than someone like him, who had sacrificed everything to get to that point.

On the surface, it reads like a standard argument about who has more to lose and who has the most to learn. But when it’s played out, the optics—a white woman “Damonsplaining” resistance fighting to a Latino man whose been in the trenches long before she had no choice but to care—took the scene up a level to near discomfort for some in the audience, I’m sure. If put in today’s context, the scene was basically a man of color telling a “well meaning,” but insensitive and selfish white woman that she can’t co-opt the fight for social justice and chastise someone else’s part in the fight just because she realized she should have been fighting long ago. The distillation of Cassian’s message was that Jyn should be reckoning with herself as to why she found it so easy not to fight the good fight, considering all she had at stake. It shouldn’t have taken Galen’s death to spur her into action. Similarly, a lot of Jyn Ersos in the audience should ask themselves why it’s taken them so long to join the social justice fight a lot of marginalized people have already been a part of and, indeed, have sacrificed a lot for.

Other standouts include Donnie Yen as the blind devotee to the Force, Chirrut Îmwe, and his friend? life partner? Baze Malbus, played by Wen Jiang.

I went into the film aware of the strong reaction these two had garnered online, with many believing that these two could be Star Wars‘ first gay couple. I say that’s great if it’s true, but if it is, then it’d be nice for Lucasfilm and Disney to actually confirm that. 

Rogue One director Gareth Edwards told Yahoo! Movies that he doesn’t mind people reading a relationship into the characters. “I think that’s all good” he said. “Who knows? You’d have to speak to them.”

“Them” being the characters. Come on now, Edwards. Quit being coy.

The coyness is what kills me, honestly. I’ll get to this in “the bad” section of this review, but seriously, the cutesy answers like this from directors need to stop. People don’t like having their emotions played with, and LGBT viewers are a demographic who have had their hopes dangled in front of them like carrots by the entertainment industry for far too long. Queerbaiting isn’t a good business practice for any entertainment studio, especially not in today’s time.

With that said, the evidence for Chirrut and Baze being that couple that’s been together so long that you can’t understand what they still see in each other (no pun intended) is strong from the beginning. They’re a package deal from the first time we meet them, with Baze hovering protectively over Chirrut, who is very much capable of being on his own. But even though we come to know that Baze is entirely aware of Chirrut’s independence (I mean, Chirrut can beat up hordes of stormtroopers in minutes), he still watches over him, and Chirrut lets him. Perhaps a better word to use is that Chirrut allows it.

Second, we have when the gang is on some rainy planet (the same planet Galen and Jyn have their sad reunion) and Chirrut decides to go trudging after Jyn, Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) and Cassian. If memory serves, Baze taunts him a bit, saying Chirrut would have to be lucky out on his own to survive. Chirrut says, “I don’t need luck; I have you.” At the very extreme, this could be excused away as just banter between really good friends. Sure, Chirrut and Baze are best friends, but movies don’t usually portray friendship in this fashion. This moment was basically the “You complete me” line from Jerry Maguire. Except that in movies, men and women are instantly coded as being in a relationship, while same-sex couples are nearly almost instantly coded as being “just friends.” If one of these characters was a woman, you’d have people vehemently arguing against any idea that their relationship was merely platonic friendship.

Also, this moment, as explained by Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan, is something that seals the deal, if you were in doubt after the “I have you” statement:

“He spends his final moments in Baze’s lap, and as his friend stares down at him, devastated, Chirrut raises his hand as if to caress Baze’s cheek. It’s the simplest gesture, but it packs a potent, more-than-platonic current, and as Chirrut expires, it’s clear that Baze does not want to live in a world without this man. He charges almost suicidally into battle, firing at Stormtroopers while repeating Chirrut’s mantra over and over–finally, at the end of his life, paying tribute to his partner’s guiding philosophy–until he, too, is felled. And while there are still plenty of big moments yet to come as Rogue One completes its story and links up with the familiar opening minutes of A New Hope, I couldn’t stop thiking about that near caress and what it might mean. After the movie was over, I asked other audience members if they thought Baze and Chirrut could have been in a relationship, and I was surprised by how many people had been picking up on the same signal.”

I must also add that as Baze faces his death, he looks back at Chirrut’s body, as if he was mentally telling himself and Chirrut that he’d be reunited with him soon. Comfortable friendship is one thing, but showing an all-encompassing love to where you don’t want to live without the other is a completely different kettle of fish, and Rogue One toys with that kettle a lot. If you read their relationship another way, you’re basically sticking your head in the sand.

Another point: Yen did an interview with GT, formerly known as Gay Times Magazine. Movie stars who are playing gay characters do interviews with gay outlets, for instance, Moonlight‘s Trevante Rhodes doing an interview with OUT Magazine. So that kinda cements it as far as I’m concerned.

Chirrut and Baze as two people in a same-sex relationship remind me of what John Cho said about the invisibility of gay Asian men in movies. Cho said that for Star Trek Beyond, he took his character Sulu’s sexuality as a way to pay homage to some of his friends:

“…I always felt the Asian gay men that I knew had much heavier cultural-shame issues…I felt like those guys didn’t date Asian men because of that cultural shame,” he said. “So I wanted it to seem really normal in the future…that there was zero shame in the future.”

In this vein, Chirrut and Baze are even more important; not only are they providing a much-needed outlet for LGBT viewers, but they are also providing an outlet for gay Asian men, who are marginalized along racial lines and within the mainstream LGBT community as a whole.

Lucasfilm/Disney

I mentioned Riz Ahmed above; his character Bodhi is super important because it finally breaks with Hollywood tradition of casting brown actors as “the terrorist” or “the taxi driver.” Finally, an actor like Ahmed, of Pakistani heritage, can be the hero of a film.

Silicon Valley‘s Kumail Nanjiani explained it best with his Twitter thread:

It was also cool to see Tyrant‘s Fares Fares in a role as well. The racial and ethnic diversity abounds in this film, and I’m glad for it.

The bad

I liked Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera. The trailers make you think you’re going to spend the majority of the movie with him, but we don’t. I wish we had more time with him.

Saw raised Jyn after was forced to separate from her parents, so you’d think we would have gotten to see more of their relationship after their reunion. It seemed like a waste to just have Whitaker around for a couple of scenes, only for him to die nobly minutes later. Whitaker gave his scenes his all, though; you can’t say he didn’t chew scenery.

K2SO, played by Alan Tudyk, was…interesting. This might be the first droid I’m lukewarm on. I get that he’s supposed to have a personality—all of the droids do—but maybe the personality went a little overboard with this one. He (since the droid is coded as such) sounded a little too human to be a realistic, more crudely made droid, and it took me out of the film a little bit each time he spoke. He did grow on me, but it took a while.

I wish there were more women of color in this film. I address this at length in this article, but just to reiterate, it’d be nice for me, as a black woman, to see more black women and women of color in general do things in this franchise.

Also, it kinda seems like Jyn still co-opts the resistance and becomes a de facto leader, even though she hasn’t done much to earn the role. Meanwhile everyone else who has given much has to follow her, as if they’ve never come up with a bright idea before. That bugged me. Again, the optics—white savior leading POC soldiers towards victory—painted the picture.

Chirrut is awesome, but does his characterization bleed into the “Hero” stereotype of disabled characters? It definitely could.

Much emphasis is on how accomplished and independent he is in spite of his disability, as if his disability is something that would make him weak otherwise. What’s actually true is that he’s strong because of his disability; it’s because of his adversity that he’s found the strength to channel the Force. On the other hand, though, the fact that he uses the Force to see has its roots in the ableism of the script, which posits that with “sight,” Chirrut is closer to being an able-bodied person. However, Chirrut doesn’t struggle against his disability, which is something that is seemingly inherent in the “Hero” stereotype. He seems to embrace it as a part of himself, which is encouraging. In short, Chirrut’s characterization teeters on both edges of the disability stereotype spectrum.

Lucasfilm/Disney

I already mentioned it above, but just to reiterate: It’s not cool when franchises bait the audience. If Chirrut and Baze are together, everyone in the film should be of one accord and say that to the press. Edwards’ maddeningly cutesy answer flies in the face of those who don’t feel Chirrut and Baze’s relationship is a joke to piddle around with. Of course, I’m sure Edwards is a fine person; he, like most of the people under the Bad Robot helm, is all about diversity. I also don’t think he means to turn Chirrut and Baze into a joke. But to say that we should ask the characters takes all of the onus off of him as the director, who has the unique ability of deciding who gets to be what in the movie. He made it a point to have a diverse cast, right? Why not make it a point to say definitively if Chirrut and Baze are in love? What’s the difference? (I know, “money,” but seriously, though, what’s the difference?)

Finally, I didn’t like the idea of reviving characters with CGI at all.

I understand the minds behind the film feeling that Tarkin and Leia were crucial to tying this film into A New Hope. But I just didn’t care for it at all. It was way too creepy and jarring to me. However, Leia looked a lot more convincing than Governor Tarkin (who we know as Grand Moff Tarkin in A New Hope). Like Leia, Tarkin had a body double (Guy Henry), but whereas Leia’s transplanted face looked like it could be sustained relatively easily throughout a film (because of Leia’s Disney Princess like features, which are probably easier to animate), Tarkin’s wasn’t realistic enough. To me, this was a case of the animation needing to be as close to the uncanny valley as possible, if not all the way in it.

For me, Tarkin’s face had too many Pixarisms to make me believe it was a real person. Yes, I know the CGI was by Industrial Light and Magic, but I’m sure there was some crossover at some point since this is a Disney movie after all. The eyes seemed too big, the nose seemed to long, and he ended up coming off as a more realistic version of the old man from Pixar short Geri’s Game.

This video explains what I’m talking about (after much fanboy-ing):

If O’Reilly could play Mon Mothma, who looks just like the original Mon Mothma, Caroline Blakiston, how come Guy Henry, who looks and sounds similar to Peter Cushing, couldn’t play Tarkin without the CGI?

Final verdict

I liked the film a lot. It’s a bit of a mood-killer, since all of our heroes die. But I don’t think we were ever promised they’d survive. The subversive aspect of a genre film like this one injecting some realism is quite jarring; we’re used to the heroes surviving no matter what. Even when Han Solo was supposedly dead from carbonite, he still survived. The fact that everyone dies and not just one singular character ups the stakes for the entire fight for the galaxy. It’s no longer child’s play; it’s hardcore. We’re not just following fun characters on an adventure; we’re following people who will give up their lives for a cause. Things are serious, and it’s fascinating that such a serious tone would inject itself in these films at this point in time. As many have said, this film has a serious social message embedded within it (again, something the film’s team coyly deny). If anything, the film warns us to jealously guard our own freedoms; don’t wait until it’s too late to stand up for what’s right.

How “Star Trek Beyond” Forgot About Black Men

Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Star Trek Beyond is a good movie. Some might even say it’s a great movie. It’s certainly a sad movie, since it’s poor Anton Yelchin’s last film, not to mention that the film’s original intent was to honor the legacy of the late Leonard Nimoy. But for everything that’s great about it (“Night on the Yorktown”GET INTO IT, soundtrack lovers), there’s one part that is apt to tickle the brain in an unpleasant way, and you won’t realize it until after you’ve left the movie. You probably won’t even realize what it is that bothered you about certain scenes until weeks or months later.

Or until you read this post.

The thing that probably bothered you was the fact that Idris Elba wasn’t allowed to be Idris Elba. Another thing that probably bothered you was how Elba’s character was indicative of the overall treatment of black men in the Star Trek reboot films. All of this reflects how black men are treated in entertainment and society overall.

Want to figure out how all of this relates to each other? Let’s get into it.

Before you get any further, you should know that there are spoilers in this post, so beware.

Idris Elba vs. Krall

Paramount Pictures/YouTube screengrabs
Paramount Pictures/YouTube screengrabs

When we see a film starring Idris Elba, we’re typically going to see Idris Elba, not Idris Elba as some monster-alien. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Elba being an actor under prosthetics, but it’s really interesting that out of all of the characters and out of all of the non-existent black men we haven’t seen up until now, the one black guy we do see is covered up so we can’t see his moneymaker—his face. This isn’t even discussing the fact that even without the social commentary, the prosthetics just look cheesy. Sorry about it, but Krall, the villain Elba plays, looks like a Power Rangers character. So, so sorry, but it’s just not a breathable looking, moldable mask. Elba couldn’t act through it, so it just made the fact that he was wearing a full-face prosthetic even more apparent and unbearable.

As if the film knew that we as the audience would get tired of hearing Elba put all his acting in his voice to counteract the impossibility of acting through the mask, the film provided us and Elba a reprieve by allowing him to actually act to the camera as the human version of Krall, Balthazar Edison, a former United Earth Military Assault commander. After the U.E.M.A. was dissolved, Edison was grandfathered into the Starfleet program as a starship captain. We see him acting jovially with his crew in an old recording found on his old ship, the U.S.S. Franklin. But that’s the thing; it’s in a old recording. You never see Elba as a human in real time. You just see this in flashback. That’s a problem because it’s yet another way to remove Elba from the movie and Krall/Edison from his own humanity (and possible chance at redemption).

So what does this have to do with the treatment of black men in Star Trek? Well, looking solely at the reboot series, we have yet to see a prominent black male character. The only black speaking male character you have seen throughout this reboot series is doggone Tyler Perry, and that’s because he paid his way in. In Star Trek Beyond, we have one black redshirt and another black guy (another redshirt, but not security) walk onto the bridge. That’s it. In a universe as vast as the Star Trek one, the potential of the series to tell the story of inclusion and humanity in harmony is always limited by the storyteller(s)’ own biases, internal limitations or, maybe in some cases, fears. Even though the film thought it pertinent to show Sulu in a relationship, despite cutting out the actual scene of him kissing his husband, the series as a whole still hasn’t shown a black man in full capacity of himself.

Krall’s death vs. Khan’s redemption

Left to right: Chris Pine plays Kirk and Idris Elba plays Crowl in Star Trek Beyond from Paramount Pictures, Skydance, Bad Robot, Sneaky Shark and Perfect Storm Entertainment
Left to right: Chris Pine plays Kirk and Idris Elba plays Crowl in Star Trek Beyond from Paramount Pictures, Skydance, Bad Robot, Sneaky Shark and Perfect Storm Entertainment

How come Krall has to die, but Khan gets to live? In Star Trek Into Darkness, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan (aka John Harrison aka a whitewashed character) gets to go back into cyro sleep, even though he’s literally a weapon. Meanwhile, Krall, who is actually a sympathetic character (As you’ll read later), accidentally kills himself with his own space-age weapon after a series of fights in which Kirk is trying to stop him, if not kill him. Why, though? Why is Khan still alive in this world when Krall is the one who should be shown some sort of olive branch?

Yes, Krall was trying to kill everyone in Yorktown and potentially, everyone in the Federation. But so was Khan. To be honest, the whole “big bad trying to kill everyone” tactic is becoming reductive and, once again, limited thinking as to what the scope of Star Trek can actually encompass. But if a big bad has to die each film, then let that be consistent. Don’t give one villain a reprieve from death and kill Elba and Eric Bana’s villains in the other two movies.

What’s the most annoying part of Krall’s demise is that there was probably somewhere still inside Krall who still wanted to return to the man he was. His main problem was that the Federation left him and his crew out to die. He did what he had to do to survive, and that included him reducing himself down to the lowest of levels to live. Krall as Edison also had another issue that Kirk primarily dealt with; the existentialism of life. Both Kirk and Krall wondered what more there was to their lives, and why they were even doing what they were doing. Both of them had dealt with existentialism even before they sat in the captain’s chair; Kirk was aimless for much of his life before Starfleet, and Edison was a commander in the world’s space army, a post he enjoyed, and then his definition of himself was taken away when Starfleet came. One area Simon Pegg and Doug Jung could have expounded on this shared issue is have Kirk actually try to talk him down during their fight. Kirk could have tried some version of “I’ve felt lost, too”  to appeal to Krall’s humanity (which is still there, since you see him begin to change back into a brown humanoid-type being). Instead, Kirk fails to use this knowledge and is instead focused primarily on stopping Krall by any means necessary.

Krall as the Black Lesson Giver

Chris Pine plays Kirk in Star Trek Beyond from Paramount Pictures, Skydance, Bad Robot, Sneaky Shark and Perfect Storm Entertainment
Chris Pine plays Kirk in Star Trek Beyond from Paramount Pictures, Skydance, Bad Robot, Sneaky Shark and Perfect Storm Entertainment

Ultimately, Krall is just another form of the black form used as a lesson giver for a white lead. Krall’s own humanity is never discussed; his humanity is treated in past tense even though you learn his motivations and reasoning behind his anger. Krall’s purpose isn’t to fulfill his own destiny; it’s to help Kirk complete his. Through Krall’s downfall, Kirk comes to the conclusion that his place is with the Enterprise after all. However, there was possibly another way Kirk could have learned this without Krall basically sacrificing himself for Kirk’s story to continue.

Krall’s entire story is something that could have been given 10 times more weight than it was. Krall being a black man who has had his sense of purpose stolen, his mental health denied (because Edison’s existentialism has given way to extreme depression), and his humanity stripped, forcing him to survive by any means necessary, only to be then denied a second chance to course-correct his life, is the black American man’s story in a nutshell. Krall wasn’t just “a monster.” He was a man who had everything taken from him and then was expected to be all right with it. He faced unimaginable things for over 100 years; what did anyone expect for him to become, a saint? After all of your crew dies and you can’t help them, you would also believe Starfleet doesn’t care about you. Starfleet brushing over their role in Krall’s creation sounds just like how America as a whole fails to understand how the country’s original sin still affects black America today. To appropriate a popular phrase, Krall’s life mattered.

What did you think of Star Trek Beyond? I invite you to give me your views on Krall and the film as a whole.

CROSS-POST: “Finding Dory,” Disability Culture, and Collective Access

Post provided by Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project

On June 25th, I saw Finding Dory after reading many positive reviews and recommendations from my disabled friends. I wasn’t disappointed. There was so much to unpack and process when I got home that I decided to write this review/essay.

Finding Dory is film depicts more than disability, it depicts disability culture.*

I tip my crip hat to the artists, writers and directors of this latest gem from Pixar.

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Warning: Spoilers to Finding Dory, Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3

People with disabilities do not see themselves very often reflected in popular culture with authenticity steeped in the lived experience. Not only are many disabled characters played bynon-disabled people; the storytellers are usually non-disabled who craft narratives about disability by using stereotypes and cliched tropes, robbing disabled characters and stories of agency and diversity.

Finding Dory has multiple characters with disabilities that live in the community (the ocean) and in institutions (the aquarium, the quarantine section of the aquarium). The characters are part of ecosystems (the coral reef) integrated with non-disabled aquatic creatures. Best yet, Dory, voiced by Ellen Degeneres, is a disabled character that is front-and-center. She is the hero on a journey.

She saves the day not in spite of but because of her disability.

When was the last time a live-action Hollywood film had this type of disability diversity and this many disabled characters interacting with each other?!?

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3 ways Finding Dory kept it real about the disability experience

#1: Parental anxiety and support

We see Dory as a young Pacific Regal Blue tang with her parents, Jenny and Charlie, voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy.

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Jenny and Charlie are patient parents who help Dory to be upfront about her disability, encouraging her to practice, “Hi, my name is Dory and I suffer from short-term memory loss.” Not a fan of the term “suffer” but anyhoo…Seeing the group of little tangs swimming nearby, I think Jenny and Charlie were preparing Dory as she planned to venture out to socialize with her peer group.  We also see Jenny and Charlie help Dory with her memory by using songs and accommodations such as seashells that enable her to find her way home.

Jenny and Charlie are like many parents of kids with disabilities:

  • They worry about her future
  • They teach her life skills that she will need
  • They are protective about Dory and her safety (“Watch for the undertow!”)
  • They show joy and love of Dory being Dory

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I got very verklempt near the end of the film when Dory was reunited with her parents. Jenny and Charlie re-constructed their environment with rows of shells radiating from their home in the hopes that Dory will find her way back. When I saw the wide shot of their home and the long rows of seashells like streaming sun beams, I thought about Jenny and Charlie’s dedication and labor. They had every confidence that Dory would find them–they did their best at preparing Dory for the outside world and believed in her abilities. I teared up thinking about my parents and the sacrifices they made for me, such as purchasing a van with a lift (no small feat for a middle class family) and various modifications to our home when I started using an electric wheelchair.

#2: Social Exclusion and Ableism

Pixar kept it real, yo! There are the warm fuzzies and SO many feels that are de rigueur for every. Single. Pixar. Film. The filmmakers balanced the feels with moments of cruelty in Finding Dory in the form of Fluke and Rudder, the two sea lions that Marlin and Nemo encounter during their search for Dory.

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Fluke and Rudder (voiced by former cast members from The Wire Iris Elba and Dominic West) are oafish bros who occupy a prime piece of rock real estate near the aquarium. Fluke and Rudder love to sleep and guffaw in a Cockney accent. They help Marlin and Nemo get into the aquarium by calling Becky the loon to transport them via pail of water.

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Fluke and Rudder get the pail by luring in Gerald, a non-verbal sea lion who is clearly a sea lion that’s on the fringes of his social group. Gerald looks a bit goofy with his bushy eyebrows and wide-eyed expression and it reinforces his lower status within a larger hierarchy where verbal and physical ability is privileged. Fluke and Rudder bullies Gerald, taking his pail and aggressively pushing him off their rock. They pretend to include Gerald, but then they bray in their loutish sea lion voices, “Off, off, off,” chasing him from their territory.

The treatment of Gerald didn’t go unnoticed. My friend Heather Ure, a “neurodivergent femme-writer-mom” according to her Twitter bio, tweeted:

I relate to Gerald intensely, his wanting to be accepted and being taken advantage of by faux friends/allies. I was angry for Gerald but was delighted to see him in a scene after the credits where he manages to nestle himself on the rock behind Rudder and Fluke and gives a bit of a snicker. He does have agency and is tenacious in getting his place in the sun.

Isn’t that what we all want and deserve at the end of the day, a rock of one’s own and the warmth of the sun?

In another example of ableism, Marlin the clownfish, voiced by Albert Brooks, did a lot of male fishsplaining in Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. Some of it was subtle and came in the form of microaggressions to Dory (when he subtly tried to dissuade Dory from attending Nemo’s field trip because the teacher didn’t want to worry about her safety in case she wandered) and more explicit instances when he blamed Dory for their predicament due to her disability.

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When Fluke and Rudder call Becky, Marlin takes one look at her ‘eccentric’ appearance and automatically discounts her abilities. Marlin’s inability to trust the disabled animals in his life and presume competence leads them into more danger. His doubts of Becky and insistence that he knows what to do is called out by Nemo, his son with a disabled fin.

Only after Nemo points out Marlin’s ableism does he flip the script and ‘thinks like Dory’ as a way to find a creative solution. This is a clear celebration of neurodiversity and neurodivergence. Heather Ure tweeted:

Writer David Chen commented on Finding Dory‘s disability hierarchy in an article where he described both Gerald and Becky:

…it separates animals who are able to speak from those who can’t. The animals who can speak have inner lives, go on adventures, have the ability to help others, possess emotional richness, and generally feel and act like full human beings…Both of these characters feel like cheap jokes. For the kids that are in the audience, they send a pretty clear message: It’s okay to laugh at people who are different, or who aren’t as smart as you are.

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To me, this is part of the disability experience of many people: ableism, social exclusion, discrimination, and segregation. You can laugh, celebrate, feel distressed and disturbed, and think critically at the same time. This is what great art does.

I’m glad the filmmakers included those scenes of ableist mistreatment of Gerald and Becky. I cringed during those scenes but I could appreciate the spectrum of the social experience of disabled people. It’s not all happy endings and the struggle is totes real.

There will always be playground bullies and people who underestimate you. Many disabled people know these subtle and not-so-subtle signs when we are not welcome or accepted: the long sighs, the eye-rolls, the sudden change of plans, the concerns about safety or accommodations, the ‘accidental’ exclusion to a party or meeting, etc.

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Dory may have memory loss, but she can sense frustration by others as if she’s a burden to them. In fact, she blames herself for losing her parents and apologizes constantly to everyone for simply existing and asking for help (i.e., internalized ableism).

The characterization of Gerald and Becky may result in laughs by some in the audience but this could also serve as an opportunity for adults and children to reflect and wonder, “Why did I laugh when Gerald was pushed in the water? Why is it ok to judge Becky’s abilities based on her looks?”

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Pixar films have never shied away from the harsh realities of life. Even with animated films geared for children or featuring young characters, it is a misconception that these films must be positive and idealistic in their storylines and characterization. Think Studio Ghibli films like My Neighbor Totoro and the moments of violence in Finding Nemo (the death of Coral, Nemo’s mother) or heartbreak and rejection in Toy Story 3 (Lotso the bear being replaced and forgotten).

#3: Collective Access

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The scene that screamed disability culture to me was the one where Destiny (a whale shark with myopia voiced by Kaitlin Olson), Bailey (a beluga whale with a head injury voiced by Ty Burrell) worked together to provide access for Dory who needed someone to guide her through the pipes to find her parents. Dory communicated her needs. Destiny heard her and relayed them Bailey, encouraging him to attempt echolocation.

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Bailey is able to echolocate Dory’s location in the pipe system, relays directions to Destiny, and Destiny speaks to Dory in whale (the language of access through pipes) guiding her all the way with a slight detour into Marlin and Dory.

Patty Berne, Co-Founder and Director of Sins Invalid, described collective access in a June 10, 2015 blog post as one of ten principles of disability justice:

…we value exploring and creating new ways of doing things that go beyond able-bodied/minded normativity. Access needs do not need to be held in shame — we all have various capacities which function differently in various environments…We can share responsibility for our access needs without shame, we can ask our needs be met without compromising our integrity, we can balance autonomy while being in community, we can be unafraid of our vulnerabilities knowing our strengths are respected.

Get a bunch of disabled people together and witness the collective access organically takes place. This isn’t the kind of access mandated by law or provided by an entity or the state. Collective access is community-based and relies on each person’s talents and abilities in a web of interdependence and understanding. It feels good to see people use what they have and share it with others.  I love it when I can provide access to a disabled friend in my own small way like typing or reaching for something. And there’s no hesitation or worry about asking my friends for help because they get it, no lengthy explanation or apologies required.

The scenes of collective access in Finding Dory fill me with such pride and solidarity for these disabled animated sea creatures.

Disabled life forms, doing it for themselves. Each in their own way!!

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Another two demonstrations of collective access occurs when Hank the septopus (voiced by Ed O’Neill) moves the baby stroller through the aquarium w/ Dory inside a sippy cup.

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He’s near the ground navigating while Dory reads the signage and gives him directions.

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Dory does the same when they hijack a truck (you have to see it to believe it) and Hank’s tentacles are on the pedals and wheel. Collective access, ya’ll!

Final Random Thoughts

  • As a wheelchair user, I laughed out loud when Hank stole the truck and said, “Suck it, bipeds!” This is something I’ve uttered a million times.
  • Another major theme is about building families–both chosen families and biological ones.
  • Hank reads to me as an someone with trauma in addition to being an amputee since he does not want to be touched.

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  • It’s nice to see Marlin embrace and respect Dory not out of gratitude (she played a larger role in saving Nemo) but because of who she is by the end of the movie.
  • The ending is wonderful when Dory accepts credit for everything she’s accomplished. She is content and comfortable in her own scales.
  • Note: I am not exactly sure who voiced the roles of Gerald and Becky. In one wiki, Torbin Xan Bullock is listed the voice of Becky. In imdb.com, the same actor is listed as the voice of Gerald.

Like science fiction and fantasy, animation gives flexibility and space for new ways of telling stories and depicting characters. Perhaps that is one reason why Finding Dory is a massively better movie about disability and disability culture without explicitly being framed as one.

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About

Alice Wong is a San Francisco-based disability advocate and Staff Research Associate at the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, UCSF. Currently, she is the Founder and Project Coordinator for the Disability Visibility Project (DVP), a community partnership with StoryCorpsand an online community dedicated to recording, amplifying, and sharing disability stories and culture. She is a co-partner with Andrew Pulrang and Gregg Beratan for #CripTheVote, a non-partisan online campaign encouraging the political participation of people with disabilities. You can find her on Twitter: @SFdirewolf and online: DisabilityVisibilityProject.com

*Footnote: Disability culture is described by scholar Steven E. Brown as:

People with disabilities have forged a group identity.  We share a common history of oppression and a common bond of resilience.  We generate art, music, literature, and other expressions of our lives and our culture, infused from our experience of disability.  Most importantly, we are proud of ourselves as people with disabilities.  We claim our disabilities with pride as part of our identity. We are who we are:  we are people with disabilities.

Other articles/blog posts about Finding Dory

‘Finding Dory,’ Disability, and Me

Elizabeth Picciuto, June 19, 2016, Daily Beast

The One Thing That Bothered Me About ‘Finding Dory’

David Chen, June 19, 2016, SlashFilm.com

‘Finding Dory’ isn’t just about disability — it’s about community and support

Stacia L. Brown, June 24, 2016, The Washington Post

Comic Book Review: “Zodiac Starforce” is Magical Fun

Syopses

• Zodiac Starforce #1

An elite group of teenage girls with magical powers have sworn to protect our planet against dark creatures . . . as long as they can get out of class!

These high-school girls aren’t just combating math tests. They’re also battling monsters! But when an evil force infects leader Emma, she must work with her team to save herself—and the world—from the evil Diana and her mean-girl minions!

* A brand-new creator-owned series from Kevin Panetta (Bravest Warriors) and Paulina Ganucheau (TMNT: New Animated Adventures, Bravest Warriors).

* For fans of Sailor Moon, Buffy, and Lumberjanes!

Writer: Kevin Panetta

Artist: Paulina Ganucheau

Cover Artist: Marguerite Sauvage

• Zodiac Starforce #2

They saved the world two years ago, but when a new, monstrous threat arises, can they put aside their differences and become a team again? Hopefully they can; otherwise team leader Emma, who’s been infected by an evil magical force, is a goner! Will the Zodiac Starforce reunite and enter the dark realm of Nephos to save their captain, or will a fierce rivalry on the volleyball court tear them apart?

Writer: Kevin Panetta

Artist: Paulina Ganucheau

Cover Artist: Kevin Wada

My thoughts: I’m a huge fan of Sailor Moon and Magical Girl things in general (like OG stuff like Magical Girl Pretty Sammy, which I think is probably one of the best iterations of the Tenchi Muyo characters). So when I heard about Zodiac Starforce, consider my interest piqued. Turns out the two issues didn’t disappoint.

Zodaic Starforce is what I have hoped for in an American version of the Magical Girl genre. Americans have tried Magical Girl things before, like with Steven Universe, but contrary to popular opinion (especially opinions about Steven Universe), I never took to any American version of anything magical girl/magical person except for Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, and even that was spliced with footage from the actual Japanese production. Zodiac Starforce, though, combines the best elements of Sailor Moon and Steven Universe and puts them together in a way that’s enjoyable for everyone. High school drama? Check. Doll-like girls with bountiful, Princess Jasmine-esque hair? Check. Diversity in race, culture, body size and sexual orientation? Check. Action and humor? Check. All of the above make for an enjoyable series for the modern age.

I’m really fascinated by how the series stars mise en scène, with the girls already in acknowledgement of their powers and having disbanded months (or years?) before. They have to get the team back together when they find out their leader, Emma, has been infected somehow and is on a course for death. Astra, the goddess that gave them their powers, doesn’t give Emma or the team any hope, but the team are adamant about saving their friend and saving the world once again from Cimmeria, the villain the assumed was dead. Or is it Cimmeria? Is it another foe taking Cimmeria’s place?

In any event, I thought it was unique to have the series start in the middle and have us learn about the world the more we read. To that end, though, I hope we learn more about the Starforce’s past, how they were chosen by Astra, who Cimmeria is and how she was defeated the first time.

Overall, Zodiac Starforce is an enjoyable series and I can’t wait to get the next issue.

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Cover art for Zodiac Starforce #1 and #2. Image credits: Dark Horse Comics

TV Review: “The Player” Takes The House

Synopsis (NBC): 

From the executive producers of “The Blacklist” comes the action-packed Las Vegas-set thriller “The Player.” The series co-stars Wesley Snipes as a pit boss and Charity Wakefield as the dealer for a high-stakes game where an organization of wealthy individuals gamble on the ability of former military operative turned security expert Philip Winchester (“Strike Back,” “Fringe”) to stop some of the biggest crimes imaginable from playing out. Can he take them down from the inside and get revenge for the death of his wife, or is it true what they say: The house always wins.

TV Review: “The Muppets”

The Muppets Pilot

Synopsis (ABC): 

The Muppets return to primetime with a contemporary, documentary-style show. For the first time ever, a series  will explore the Muppets’ personal lives and relationships, both at home and at work, as well as romances, breakups, achievements, disappointments, wants and desires. This is a more adult, new Muppet series, for “kids” of all ages.

Comic Book Review: "Archie #1"

Written by: Mark Waid

Art by : Fiona Staples

Synopsis: Change is coming to Riverdale in this can’t-miss kick-off to Archie’s new ongoing series! Familiar faces return in new and unexpected ways in this must-have #1 issue! As the new school year approaches, you’d think Archie Andrews would be looking forward to classes and fun—but nothing is as it seems in the little town of Riverdale. But is this a one-off or a sign of bigger changes awaiting for America’s favorite teens—and the entire town? Find out in this exciting and remarkable first issue!