Film Forward

The Rock's Latest Role Sparked A Conversation About People With Disabilities In Film

"Skyscraper" is the center of an important debate.

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Diversity and inclusion are hot-button words being thrown around Hollywood right now, and The Rock has found himself at the center of it. With his new movie, which features him portraying a man with a prosthetic leg who pulls off some Die Hard-esque action, he has started a very important conversation on disability in film.

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Skyscraper — written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber — features Dwayne Johnson as Will Sawyer, a U.S. war veteran and former FBI agent who has a prosthetic leg. It's up to him to save his family from the titular building that has been set ablaze by some baddies. Just like the mixed 50 percent score it has earned on Rotten Tomatoes, Skyscraper has received both praise and criticism over The Rock's character.

The positive reaction that stands out the most is the /Film review from Kristen Lopez, a critic and writer with a disability who found the movie — and The Rock's portrayal — to be a "surprising mark of improvement for disabled representation on the big screen." In the review, Lopez wrote about how the character isn't defined by his disability, it's just a part of him. There's nothing to overcome here because he is more than a prosthetic leg and being an amputee. It isn't perfect, Lopez concluded, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. In response, Johnson shared Lopez's review on social media and, by doing so, gave voice to a segment of media criticism that is often overlooked.

A notable negative reaction came from Katy Sullivan, a paralympic athlete and actress, who wrote an open letter to Johnson on Deadline about taking on this role of a character with a disability. As Sullivan points out, individuals with disabilities make up nearly 20 percent of the world's population yet are almost completely ignored by Hollywood, even during the recent push for improved diversity. The root of the problem here is that people with disabilities don't get to tell their own stories, meaning that they can never have "true inclusion." Sullivan asks Johnson — and others — to consider passing on these roles so that those with disabilities can portray themselves.

Given the equal vocalization between positive and negative opinions from the public, let's now look at how The Rock handled this role himself. It seems as if the star has treated this opportunity to portray a character with a disability as a learning experience and a chance to shine a spotlight on change that needs to be made in Hollywood and the entertainment industry in general.

The Associated Press reports that The Rock has joined the Ruderman Family Foundation, a Boston-based organization with a mission to improve the representation for people with disabilities. He released a video calling the more inclusion of people with disabilities in Hollywood and noted how his character doesn't let being an amputee define him, which is what makes it so great.

On top of this, Johnson also teamed up with Xbox to surprise patients at NYU Langone Health, in partnership with Rusk Rehabilitation, with a screening of Skyscraper and connected with an audience full of those with disabilities or those who specialize in working with them.

It would be remiss of us not to compare how The Rock dealt with public opinion on playing this particular character with the recent controversy over how Scarlett Johansson would play a transgender character in the upcoming film Rub & Tug. This sparked outrage among the trans community and was made only worse by a sour statement on the issue. Though this started a good debate on non-transgender people taking on transgender roles, Johansson has since backed out of the project.

The Rock's handling of Skyscraper's central character with a disability is vastly different, and is a positive example of an able-bodied person using their privilege and status to call attention to an underrepresented group that deserves the chance to shine. This is a problem The Rock alone cannot fix and, as Karen Willison of The Mighty points out, it's going to take a lot more to really change things. There's more to do, but Johnson helps move us in the right direction.

Cover image: lev radin / Shutterstock.com

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