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'Me Before You' controversy puts Hollywood on notice

Some critics complain that 'Me Before You' is another example of how Hollywood only has one story to tell when it comes to people with disabilities.
A poster of \"Me Before You\" at its world premiere at AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 theater on May 23, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty)
A poster of \"Me Before You\" at its world premiere at AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 theater on May 23, 2016 in New York City.

The romantic drama "Me Before You" has become a breakout sleeper hit at the box office this summer but its plot — which revolves around a quadriplegic man seeking euthanasia — has turned off a lot of audiences and activists.

The movie's defenders, including author Jojo Moynes, who wrote the bestselling book the film is based on, have argued that it doesn't have a sociopolitical agenda. But as far as some members of the disabled community are concerned, it's another example of how Hollywood has virtually one story to tell when it comes to people with disabilities — and it isn't a very realistic one.

"You are either like a poor soul to be pitied or you’re usually the opposite of that, you’re some sort of superhero — for the most part they really sensationalize," Kelly Buckland, the executive director of the National Council on Independent Living, told MSNBC on Friday. "There’s a lot of stereotypes and myths."

Buckland became a quadriplegic after breaking his neck in 1970, and he spent most of the ensuing years as an activist for people with disabilities in the U.S. He came of age in a world with limited accessibility, where even his college professors discouraged him from believing he could live a normal, productive life. And after the advances brought about in the aftermath of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, he considers "Me Before You" a "slap in the face" of a community still struggling to gain equality.

"This one really kind of resonates with me personally because when I broke my neck I spent about a year in rehabilitation. When I returned back to my community, I wasn’t the same person I was when I left there," said Buckland. "All my friends and my family still saw me, still remembered me how I was. There's a lot of loss you go through. I went through a significant depression because I thought I'd never have a career, I’d never get married, all the things that people dream about. I actually seriously considered suicide."

Instead, Buckland earned college and post-graduate degrees, has been married for 25 years, raised a teenage son, owns two homes and even ran for office in his native Idaho. "I've had a lot of interesting, fun times in my life and for [the main character in 'Me Before You'] to kill himself and cut all this short is depressing to me," he said. "If you’re really injured, this is giving you the message that you should really kill yourself."

Protests against the film are either scheduled or in the works for this weekend in Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Boston, and Atlanta, as well as Brazoria County, Texas, and Asheville, North Carolina. MSNBC reached out to Warner Brothers, the film's distributor for comment, but has not heard back at this time.

Meanwhile, as far as John Kelly, the regional director of the disability rights group Not Dead Yet, is concerned, the debate over the film is a "wonderful opportunity" to engage the nation on its inherent hostility when it comes to marginalized segments of society.

"The only function of this movie is a direct attack on disabled people, saying our lives are not valuable," Kelly, who is also a quadriplegic like the film's protagonist, told MSNBC on Friday. "The disability [Hollywood likes] to show is at my level. All we are is a head ... it evokes horror disgust and fear in people."

Kelly and others take issue with the fact that Moynes admits to not having known or interviewed any quadriplegics prior to writing her novel, instead leaning on her own experiences with a family member who had a progressive disease. While others have called out the story's narrative itself, which presents a wealthy protagonist who has been paralyzed for just two years and, despite having the means, support and love to live a productive life, determines that death is the better option.

"The choice was made by a bigot to write a story in which everything about the character would be Hollywood perfect, and the only thing he saw as a detraction in his life was his disability," said Kelly. "[Moynes] has it in for this group of people that has been condemned."

"Where are the stories in which we get to live and thrive?" he added. "People love to cry when we die. I think it reassures people that their lives are so much better. Everything conspires against us to prevent us from having a good time."

The film also doesn't appear to have prominently featured real people with disabilities either in front of or behind the camera. Much has been made about the lack of female and minority representation in Hollywood films, but members of the disabled community arguably fare even worse. And unlike most other minority groups, more often than not they aren't even portrayed by people who are disabled, despite the fact that they represent one-fifth of the population as a whole. While 14 of the 27 Best Actor Oscars winners since 1988 portrayed someone with a serious illness or disability, only three trophies have ever been given to someone who is living with a disability in real life.

"If a white person were to portray the life of black person, how would that be perceived? Not well," said Buckland. "The mantra is nothing about us, without us. We should be the actors, we should be involved in research, the production."

These kinds of positions would be a boon to a community that, despite some very historic strides, remains stymied by a dramatic lack of economic opportunity. Only 20 percent of people with disabilities participate in the American work force, while the disabled community is also battling for parental rights and against systems of institutional biases that reinforce the hurtful notion that they are "better off dead."

RELATED: Disability rights have long been bipartisan. Will Trump end that?

Thanks to Donald Trump's widely criticized imitation on the campaign trail of Serge Kovaleski, a New York Times journalist with a congenital joint condition, these issues have earned more prominence than usual in this year's electoral cycle. The pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC Priorities USA has already unleashed an ad in swing states featuring the parents of a child with spina bifida taking the presumptive Republican nominee to task for his actions. Trump has insisted that he was ridiculing Kovaleski's memory, not his appearance, but Buckland believes the damage of his behavior has already been done.

"I don’t how you could watch that and not think he was mocking that guy, I don’t know how he could say he wasn’t, it’s clear he was," he said. "The disabled community hasn’t forgotten that and we’re not going to forget it."

But Kelly believes that Trump's behavior is just the symptom of a much deeper sickness, one that has persisted in the soul of America since perhaps it founding: A preoccupation with individual autonomy and gratification. He believes the public loves to celebrate exceptional outliers (like Stephen Hawking or Muhammad Ali) and those who appear to be self-sufficient, at the expense of those who aren't. There is an emphasis on the triumph of the human spirit — which he calls "fanciful claptrap" — when, in reality, solidarity is needed. 

Too many people forget the fact that we are all born disabled, Kelly believes. We all have to learn how to walk, talk, use the bathroom. For some of us, for one reason or another, these activities can be a challenge or an impossibility, but they certainly are not a death sentence.

"There needs to be a broad-based movement led by people of color, immigrants, working people — declaring that it's connection with other people, support and opportunities that really matter," he said. "[The idea of] 'autonomy or death' is so dangerous, because it means that suicide is more noble than life."