MINOR SPOILER WARNING
The countdown to the 2022 Oscar nominations is over: On February 8th, the nominees for the 94th Academy Awards — to take place on March 27th, 2022 — were announced, including those for the Best Picture category. Many blockbuster films recieved nominations, among them Denis Villeneuve’s Dune and the star-studded Don’t Look Up. And for the first time in history, a film with a predominantly deaf cast scored a nomination: the 2021 film, CODA.
CODA’s recent Oscar recognition is monumental not only in its representation of deaf culture and relationships between differently abled individuals and families, but also its featuring of authentic actors who are a part of this diverse community. Troy Kotsur, who plays Frank in the film, made history as the first deaf man and the second deaf individual to be nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. Marlee Matlin, who became the first deaf person to be nominated in 1987, then went on to win Best Actress (she also remains the youngest winner in the Best Actress category.)
Last semester, I had the opportunity to go see CODA in Cornell Cinema, presented by the Cornell University Deaf Awareness Project and the Department of Linguistics.
The film’s title is an acronym for Children of Deaf Adults, a community often overlooked in a society that still has much ground to cover in regards to deaf inclusion. At its core, CODA follows the journey of main character Ruby as she navigates relationships and figures out what career she wants to pursue. While grappling with the universal turbulence of adolescence, she simultaneously strives to make her family proud, living with a mother, father and brother who are all deaf.
I found CODA to be an intriguing and insightful watch, as it made me analyze my own understanding — or lack thereof — of aspects of deaf culture. As an intro level American Sign Language student, it was gratifying to apply my skills and process the language depicted in the film to the best of my ability. Such exposure to deaf communication in media is not only a rewarding experience for learners, but also encourages the general public to familiarize themselves with ASL.
Many moments in the film are personal and memorable, depicting both the bonds and conflicts between Ruby, the only hearing person in her family, and her deaf loved ones. For example, conflict occurs when Ruby discusses with her mother her dream to sing. Her mother, offended, then asks if Ruby would want to paint if she (the mother) was blind. Towards the end of the movie, the conflict resolves into a tender moment when Ruby signs the words to a song she previously performs with her parents in the crowd.
The experiences of Ruby’s family illuminate the inequities that deaf people so frequently face. When a ship operator overseeing Ruby’s family’s fishing business attempts to trade important radio signals with Ruby’s father, Frank, and brother, Leo, Frank and Leo have to sign that they’redeaf and do not have an interpreter with them. They struggle to communicate, and ultimately, they’re penalized and suspended from fishing over a conflict that could have been resolved if the operators had been more accommodating of their disabilities.
This unfair dynamic is further highlighted when Leo expresses frustration about how Ruby is expected to constantly interpret for her family when others should instead find ways to work with deaf people and be inclusive. The moment is a reminder that this frequent discrimination has tangible ramifications: deaf people are subjected to higher unemployment than hearing people, and often face punitive measures due to their difference of ability.
The movie isn’t without critique; I felt that some characters, such as Ruby’s best friend, Gertie, weren’t developed deeply enough. Nevertheless, I found the film to be a heartwarming story with a good introduction to facets of deaf culture.
Following the film’s conclusion, members of Cornell’s Children of Deaf Adults held a panel where they discussed their takeaways and answered questions. Those who wish to learn more about experiences with deaf culture and how we can all be more cognizant and inclusive of deaf people, are encouraged to check out the panel transcript. CODA is available for streaming now on Apple TV.
Oluoma Iroajanma ‘24 is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].