‘Children of a Lesser God’ blazed a trail for representation but doesn’t hold up today

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Children of a Lesser God was a leap forward in representation for deaf and hard-of-hearing people in film, both in its characters and the actors hired to play them. However, decades later, it doesn’t hold up to closer scrutiny as it focuses on its hearing male character to the detriment of its deaf female character. (NBA: 2.5/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Nicole Ackman

Randa Haines’s 1986 Children of a Lesser God was ground-breaking for its representation of deaf and hard-of-hearing characters. The film, written by Hesper Anderson and Mark Medoff, is based on Medoff’s 1979 Tony Award-winning Broadway play and stars Marlee Matlin and William Hurt. When viewing it in 2020, though, the movie feels problematic but still has some merits. 

James (Hurt) is a new teacher hired by a school for deaf and hard-of-hearing children who is passionate about helping deaf people learn to speak. He is immediately intrigued by the school’s fiery young custodian, Sarah (Matlin), who was once one of their top students. He is determined that he can teach her to communicate better through lip-reading and improved speaking; he pursues her. The two eventually become involved romantically, and Sarah must make important decisions about her future. 

Sarah is admittedly a great character. She’s spunky and initially resistant to James’s advances. Matlin’s performance is fantastic as she’s very expressive, especially as Sarah starts to open up to James. The character of James doesn’t hold up as well. He certainly has a savior complex towards both his students and Sarah. At one point, he even patronizingly tells her, “I’ll take care of you.” While the film does try to sell their romance (and the pivotal scene in the pool is gorgeously shot), it’s hard to look at it with a modern lens and not see the power imbalance. 

The film was significant in depicting deaf characters and its opportunities for deaf and hard-of-hearing actors. It was the first major film since You’d Be Surprised in 1926 to feature a deaf actor in a leading role as Matlin is deaf like Sarah’s character. It was one of the first films to heavily feature American Sign Language (ASL), which is still rarely seen on screen. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Matlin won the award for Best Actress at the age of just twenty-one years old. It marked her film debut, and while she went on to further work, she has never been nominated for an Oscar again. 

Despite being a logistically good representation, how the deaf characters are treated within the film is less than ideal. Instead of captioning characters who are using ASL, Hurt’s character often repeats everything they’ve said aloud. It only furthers the sense that James is constantly speaking for Sarah rather than listening to her wants and opinions. It’s beautiful to see Sarah blossom and come out of her shell, but it’s clearly on James’s terms and not her own. While James’s support of his students is endearing, it’s also evident that he thinks he knows what is best for them despite being a hearing person himself. I can imagine that he wasn’t widely perceived as commandeering when the film was initially released, though people of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community have had issues with the play and film since they first premiered.  

Many others have written about the film’s offensiveness to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community in the years since it was released. Matlin also later revealed that Hurt, who she was dating at the time, was physically and emotionally abusive to her, thus further tarnishing the film’s legacy. The film is far too centered around its male hearing character, despite having a wonderful female deaf character, and to a modern audience, he seems like a jerk. While Children of a Lesser God was certainly an achievement in its time, it’s difficult to swallow now. 

© Nicole Ackman (10/20/20) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Matlin and Hurt in Children of a Lesser God

Middle Photo: Matlin in Children of a Lesser God

Bottom Photo: Hurt and Matlin in Children of a Lesser God

Photo Credits: Takashi Seida 

Does it pass the Bechdel test?

Yes, Sarah and her mother discuss her career and her childhood. 

Tags: FF2 Media, Turner Classic Movies, Women Make Film

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Nicole Ackman
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Nicole Ackman is an FF2 Media Associate based in North Carolina, after living in London and New York. She graduated from Elon University with a Bachelors degree in History and Strategic Communication and from City University of London with a Masters degree in Culture, Policy, and Management. She is a theatre and film critic and is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. Her taste in film tends towards period dramas, movie musicals, and anything starring Saoirse Ronan. In addition to film, she is passionate about history, theatre, Disney parks, and classic novels by female writers.
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