All the Light We Cannot See shows disabled actors are crucial for disabled roles
Director Shawn Levy described the casting of visually impaired performers as the "defining choice of the project".
Filmmakers often attempt to tell disabled stories, but few cast disabled actors in disabled roles.
Thankfully, Netflix's adaptation of the globally renowned novel All the Light We Cannot See rejected that tired option by conducting a worldwide search to find visually impaired actors for the lead role of Marie-Laure Leblanc – and it paid off, big time.
Describing it as the "defining choice of the project", director Shawn Levy and writer Stephen Knight pursued actors with visual impairments to fill the pivotal role of Leblanc as both a young woman and a child, a decision that crystallised after watching CODA - the Oscar-winning picture which revolves around the child of a deaf adult and features three deaf/hard-of-hearing actors in leading roles.
After conducting an open casting call, the duo discovered two gems to take on the role of Leblanc, who has total blindness: the charming Nell Sutton, who plays her in her younger years, and Aria Mia Loberti, who steals the show as the older version of Leblanc.
While everyone in the drama pulls off excellent performances, the union of these two actors in particular lights up the screenplay and pulls the audience further into the story.
Of course, non-disabled actors are capable of acting disabled, yet TV shows and movies that "crip up" their performers instead of actually casting disabled talent nearly always suffer for it, with inauthenticity undermining many attempts to portray disability accurately – the result of that being audiences finding it nigh on impossible to get lost in the story being told.
In other depictions, they feel like a vile caricature or a mockery of disabled life. The Elephant Man, The Theory of Everything and My Left Foot are just a few examples of an endless stream of "cripped-up" stories that fail to immerse audiences in reality.
When it comes to visually impaired characters in particular, "cripping up" can feel especially jarring, even when actors are lauded for their attempts, like Jamie Foxx's turn as Ray Charles in Ray.
But the creators of All the Light dodged all that by investing in performers who understood the experience they were asked to depict.
Loberti, who was born with a genetic eye condition that causes blindness in some environments and reduced vision in others, uses her real-life experience to craft a mesmerising performance that steals every scene, even when we can only hear her voice on the radio. Leblanc's disability is explored in all of its shades without falling into the trap of tokenising her. And, thankfully, there is the blessed absence of a non-disabled actor fumbling through scenes with a glazed look on their face.
Although it could have been interesting to highlight the fact that most visually impaired people are not totally blind – about 15% of people with eye disorders have total blindness – it's easily forgotten in the presence of Loberti's phenomenal performance.
The show also compassionately portrays what it's like to be visually impaired and how adapting requires practice. We are treated to flashbacks of Leblanc and her father Daniel Leblanc (Mark Ruffalo) in which he teaches her how to navigate the town in which they live by using a miniature version of their home.
Disabled characters are frequently written as helplessly useless, resigned to living according to the whims of their non-disabled carers, but All the Light... sidesteps this trope, instead presenting Leblanc as an independent character who is capable of more than ableists would assume possible.
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The character plays an instrumental role in the resistance and spends her days navigating the town on her own, using her memory and a cane. She does not do these things despite her disability; she simply lives her life – a refreshing departure from standard portrayals of disability.
But the show doesn't fall into the trap of making her seemingly unaffected by her disability – she's living alone in a warzone, after all. Of course, she's vulnerable, and the script explores this viscerally on a few occasions.
One upsetting moment that drives this home arrives in her first meeting with the evil Reinhold von Rumpel, an SS officer searching for the "Sea of Flames" diamond. Seeing Leblanc identify the threat too late and watching the villain pressure her to divulge the location of the precious gem puts the audience on the edge of their seats.
And strikingly, none of the other characters waste screen time pitying Leblanc either. Many of the townspeople demonstrate unwavering respect and loyalty to her by resisting von Rumpel's pressure tactics to protect their friend, all of which they do without veering off the path into patronising tones and empty gestures.
Too often, disabled characters get stuck between two stereotypical boxes: inspiration porn or traumatic victims, but the source material and the screenplay form a multi-layered character with hopes, dreams, traumas and ideas, deftly dodging stereotypes along the way.
Loberti reflected on her relationship with disability recently in an interview with Vanity Fair, explaining that she dislikes the phrase "blind actor".
"I'm an actor, and I want everyone who comes after me to be accepted as an actor, or whatever profession it is that they have," she said. "I wasn't a blind PhD student, a blind author, a blind whatever. I do those things. I am myself."
All the Light We Cannot See is spell-binding for numerous reasons, but the presence of Sutton and Lobeti as Marie-Laure elevates it courtesy of the authenticity that underscores their captivating performances.
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