An Analysis of the Portrayal of Disabilities in Movies

Topics: I Am Sam

Disabilities in the media, with a particular emphasis on film, is an important topic insofar as it echoes throughout a culture. Just like issues such as body image, race/ethnicity, and gender relations are deeply impacted by how they are portrayed in widely published works of commerce and art, the public’s view of disabilities hinges on their portrayal in the media, either positive or negative. That has been true since the birth of film; in fact, the Turner Classic Movies channel has explored how disabilities has been treated in film.

The curator of a series of disability-based films on the channel said, “From returning veterans learning to renegotiate both the assumptions and environments once taken for granted to the rise of independent living, Hollywood depictions of disability have alternately echoed and influenced life outside the movie theater”[ CITATION LCa12 l 1033 ]. In recent times, a number of disability-depicting films have been released, several of which feature non-disabled actors portraying and interpreting life for a disabled person in the 21st century, and the challenges that presents.

One film in particular, I am Sam, is very ambitious in addressing the experience of those with intellectual disabilities, and the struggle for independence, happiness, and acceptance in mainstream society.

The film I am Sam was commercially successful in the United States when it was released in 2001; it has since grossed over $97 million in comparison to a $46 million budget [ CITATION Box14 \l 1033 ]. The commercial success of a film about an intellectually challenged, middle-age man demonstrates a public interest in the topic, and its popularity is how it came to be the subject of this analysis.

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In the film, a developmentally disabled man named Sam (portrayed by Sean Penn) is a father to a young girl named Lucy (portrayed by Dakota Fanning), who has passed her father in terms of mental ability. The film follows the father’s attempts to maintain custody of his daughter. Along the way, audiences are given many chances to connect with the father’s struggle, which is emotionally evocative: a loving father is no longer allowed to serve as the sole guardian for his daughter as she moves into the custody of foster parents.

When it comes to how Sean Penn depicts and interprets the life of a white, American male with an intellectual disability, his performance is actually quite good to the extent that he builds rapport and an emotional connection with audiences. The character is presented realistically in scenes between Sam and his daughter as well as his disabled friends (interestingly played by individuals with real intellectual handicaps). Sam encounters problems but also triumphs – and it is through these triumphs the audience builds respect and feeling for the character. A scene in which Sam breaks down after being opposed by the state’s representatives at trial is emotionally charged and hard to forget. In that way, the film is well-intentioned and hard to dismiss.

However, one could criticize the film for oversimplifying or “over-sentimentalizing” the disabled man’s challenges. One could call it a “message movie,” which is a term a film critic would use to describe a movie that has an exaggeratedly overt message to communicate to audiences. The argument, of course, is that Sam and Lucy should remain a family, while common sense clearly would demonstrate the opposite. Working in the opposite direction though is Sam’s job at Starbucks, apartment in a good part of town, and his high-powered family lawyer, which all suggest that Sam is self-sufficient enough to achieve things all on his own, without the need for a service provider, family, or disability advocate. In reality, however, developmentally challenged individuals often desperately need these services and can suffer greatly without them. To that extent, one could criticize the movie for glorifying the life of someone with disabilities. Regardless, the overall commercial and artistic success of the film was positive for the disabled community in the United States. I felt a sympathetic connection with Sam as an engaged audience member, and I am sure others watching the movie did as well. That kind of messaging might engender support for individuals with disabilities in other ways, including increases in volunteering to help the disabled or fundraising for organizations that support disabled individuals. I, for example, would consider taking those extra steps to help after watching the film and its portrayal.

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An Analysis of the Portrayal of Disabilities in Movies. (2021, Dec 24). Retrieved from

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