From After the Silence to CODA: Deaf Characters and their Cinematic Representation

Written by Multicom's Nicole Bajorek (artwork by Nicole Bajorek)

Deaf characters and actors have long been underrepresented, stereotyped, and ignored in the history of cinema and television. A majority of the few deaf characters featured or included in movies and shows were often played by hearing actors (usually with no ties to the Deaf community), and painted as highly-dependent beings. A deaf character was also often dismissed by the majority of (hearing) characters, and regarded as slow-minded and gullible.
 
While I cannot speak for deaf people, as a #CODA (acronym for Child of Deaf Adults), I’ve grown up among the Deaf community and have experienced, understood, admired, and respected Deaf culture firsthand. My mother was born deaf, while my father became deaf at the age of three due to tuberculosis. Both born in the postwar era of Poland, they emigrated to the United States in search of better opportunities and lifestyles as deaf individuals. There, they found a flourishing Deaf community, as well as accommodating technology and services. My parents are constantly telling me how proud they are to identify themselves as Deaf.
 
My CODA upbringing allowed me the chance to see life in another perspective. The older I got, the more I appreciated my “living between two worlds” way of life, and eagerly sought out to understand it more on a deeper level, especially in personal areas of interest. When I began academically studying film history, I was always in search of stories about the experiences of deaf people—as well as fellow CODAs—from all walks of life within and outside of film and television. The little “breakthroughs” of my personal research have been rewarding in the sense that there is still so much to explore than I had previously thought, each of them leading to more pieces of the puzzle.
 
Seeing a film like After the Silence pop up in our library was one of those moments. Having had the chance to catalog and digitize its physical assets, create original key art for the movie, and work on the metadata, it just emits even more of a motivation to keep it all going.
 
Based on true events, After the Silence follows the story of Laura, a twenty-year-old deaf woman who has faced years of isolation, neglect, and physical abuse from her father. When Laura is taken in by Pam Willis, a social worker, Pam quickly realizes that she has never learned how to read, write, or communicate through sign language. With shelters refusing to accept a deaf person, Pam bends the rules and brings Laura to her home, teaching her how to communicate and uncovering her true personality.
 
The 1996 drama stars JoBeth Williams as Pam Willis, Kellie Martin as Laura Keyes, with additional performances by Alan Rosenberg, Billy Jayne, and S. Epatha Merkerson.

The artwork for After the Silence is directly inspired by the color shift seen throughout the film, representing Laura’s transition. The movie opens up with prominent blue tones that soak up Laura’s neighborhood and apartment building, symbolizing Laura’s abusive life. As things progress, the colors slowly turn into warmer red-orange tones when Laura temporarily moves in with Pam, and sets her sights on a life of independence.
 
American Sign Language is featured throughout the movie amidst spoken English dialogue. Aspects of the Deaf community and culture are introduced as Laura receives formal education and meets deaf peers.
 
Although Laura’s character was played by a hearing actress, upon watching the film with my parents, we found her performance to be moving, and her signing quite understandable, fluid, and accurate. This was a big step from how deaf characters were portrayed in earlier films.

Also within our film library is Askari, the 2001 family drama that stars actress and deaf activist Marlee Matlin, who also appears in the 2021 film CODA, which is set for theatrical release and streaming on Apple TV+ later this week. And of course there is A Quiet Place and A Quiet Place 2 both of which feature signing (and a pivotal character) as a vital plot point to advance the story. We are happy to see the positive representation of deaf characters and actors continue to populate the screen.

Stream After the Silence, Askari and so many more free now on TheArchive.

About the author:
Nicole Bajorek is a Metadata Assistant at Multicom Entertainment Group, parent company of TheArchive. She is also a CODA, Child of Deaf Adults.

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