American Sign Language is the third most commonly used language in the United States, according to StartASL.com. However, ASL isn’t as represented in the American film industry as it is in the country’s culture.
Recent big-budget movies have been including ASL and bringing deaf actors to the forefront more and more including “Baby Driver”, “A Quiet Place” and “The Shape of Water.”
In “A Quiet Place,” John Krasinski and Emily Blunt play parents in a post-apocalyptic world where their family utilizes ASL all throughout the movie to communicate to their deaf daughter and hide from extremely deadly monsters that hunt by sound.
With a $50.3 million opening box office weekend and sparkling reviews from professional to general audience members, “A Quiet Place” used sign language effectively to push its narrative to the limit.
Krasinski said the entire cast of the movie learned sign language in preparation for filming.
Plattsburgh State adjunct communication science and disorders professor Jill Eklof said the film industry should be utilizing deaf actors and actresses for roles that involve sign language.
Director, writer, producer and leading actor, Krasinski pushed to cast a deaf actress for the role of the daughter for authenticity. This led to the casting of 15-year-old Millicent Simmonds, who also was instrumental in teaching the cast ASL.
PSUC public relations major and current ASL student Kah Mun Lee agrees that deaf actors should be chosen for a more accurate representation of sign language.
“It is impossible to pick up ASL in just a few months and portray it perfectly on screen, let alone a day,” Lee said. “When a hearing actor plays a deaf role, I don’t think the role is represented well enough. I think deaf actors have a deeper understanding of deaf experiences.”
Lee saw the trailer for “A Quiet Place” and was extremely excited to see actors using sign language, particularly because it was the first time she had seen it in a highly anticipated movie.
“I think sign language is the most underrepresented [language] in film and that is a huge problem,” Lee said. “It shows our ignorance toward deaf culture and the deaf community. I think it is important for deaf children to have more deaf role models represented on screen.”
Last year’s Best Picture with 15 nominations “The Shape of Water” also featured a protagonist that communicates through sign language throughout the movie.
Sally Hawkins received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her performance. The ASL featured in the film required two coaches to teach Hawkins the 60s linguistic differences.
Lee said she believes ASL should be utilized to represent the deaf/mute community, but it is important that they are represented well.
“I think it [representation] would get them [deaf/mute people] to recognize that the only thing limiting them is society,” Lee said. “And it would help them realize their disability as an opportunity rather than something that will hinder them.”
Although the film and Hawkins’ performance were highly praised, “The Shape of Water” did receive criticisms from the deaf and mute communities for underlying negative tones surrounding disabilities written into the narrative.
Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute cleaning woman in a secret government facility that falls in love with the Amphibian Man currently being held captive for experimentation.
TOR.com published a commentary that said the biggest flaw in the narrative was having a disabled protagonist fall for a “kindred spirit” monster, linking her disability with the Amphibian Man’s freakish nature.
Lee and Eklof agree that there is no real drawback to using sign language in film because it’s empowering.
“ASL is a beautiful language and I believe it can only enhance a movie,” Elkof said. “Subtitles are utilized all the time in movies. I do not think it is a distraction to see a person signing and having subtitles underneath the signer.”
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