When “The Celluloid Closet” debuted in 1996, it became an instant landmark in the fight for gay equality. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary presented a mostly dispiriting history of homosexuals on the big screen and concluded that, given the power of cinema in shaping psyches and societies, fairer representations of the gay community were urgently needed.
In “CinemAbility,” filmmaker Jenni Gold adopts a similar message and tack on behalf of the physically disabled. Narrated by actress Jane Seymour and packed with A-list interviewees, this exhaustive and eye-opening documentary explores images of the physically disabled on TV and in the movies.
Because cinema’s earliest stories about disability now strike us as patently offensive — popular tropes included supposedly handicapped beggars who faked their infirmities and blind girls who miraculously regained their eyesight as a reward for virginal behavior — the film’s overall narrative is one of rocky but steady progress.
The film’s most interesting segment arrives halfway through, when the talking heads weigh in on the appropriateness of able-bodied actors playing disabled roles. Producer Janis Hirsch compares it to blackface, while director Garry Marshall insists that “it’s really about talent and magic” — not accurate representation. The discussion ends without resolution, a sign that the disabled community is quite diverse — and they have a lot of opinions about how they’re being portrayed by Hollywood.
“CinemAbility.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements and language. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. At Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino.