By Holly Bonner
With the start of the summer movie season upon us, millions of people will be heading to their local theaters ready to watch the next big Hollywood blockbuster. Sadly, movies depicting people with various disabilities are often lackluster, leaving audiences with an unrealistic representation of disabled individuals. In particular, films portraying blindness have often perpetuated an overwhelming sense fear and other gross inaccuracies relating how it feels to exist in a world without vision. However, there are some films that have found a good balance between entertainment value, a believable plot, and a depiction of a blind character who is both capable and independent. Fair warning, we have spoilers ahead! Check out these 5 favorite fictional films that portray blindness.
1) Ray (2004): Ray follows the life of Ray Charles, the beloved, talented real-life songwriter and composer behind “I Got a Woman” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You”. Diagnosed with glaucoma, Ray Charles was completely blind by the age of seven. Played by the incomparable Jamie Foxx, this biopic combines theatrical dramatization with a story line that stays relatively true to Charles’ actual rise to fame. Why is Ray on our list? We love this film because it strikes a delicate balance between depicting the barriers that many blind people face, while also showing how people with sight loss can have immense success in pursuing their dreams.
2) The Book of Eli (2010): Remember, we did say “spoiler alert.” The Book of Eli is set in a post-nuclear apocalyptic world that’s been taken over by bands of violent gangs and rogue bandits. Oscar winning actor, Denzel Washington, plays Eli, a lone wolf traveler. Within his possession, Eli has a book that is considered very valuable currency in this new world. Gary Oldman, who plays a mob-type boss named Carnegie, is willing to do whatever it takes to get it from Eli. So, what sets the Book of Eli apart from other movies featuring blind characters? First off, Eli shows audiences that people without vision are far from helpless. Not only did Washington’s character kick some serious butt on the big scream, but he made smart decisions highlighting his extreme intelligence and problem-solving abilities! Secondly, Eli wasn’t the only blind person featured in the film. Actress Jennifer Beals of Flashdance fame, played Claudia, Carnegie’s girlfriend. In what was one of the most vulnerable performances of her career, Beals plays the blind mother of a sighted teenage daughter. While she’s forced to endure unimaginable suffering at the hands of Oldman’s character, Beals illustrates how blind mothers will do anything to protect their children. Now that’s a message, we can get behind.
3) Elizabeth Harvest (2018): Chances are, you never heard of this film, but if you’re a fan of Hitchcock-type horror then this one is for you. Elizabeth, played by Abby Lee, has just married a man she thinks is the love of her life. He’s rich, he’s successful, and he has a beautiful glass house in the middle of nowhere. The “nowhere” part should have been her first clue that she was in trouble. Ciaran Hinds plays the role of the lucky newlywed, Henry, who appears content to spoil his young, doe-eyed bride. His only request is that Elizabeth does not enter one specific room in the basement of the house. Herein lies Elizabeth’s second clue that she is in trouble; nothing good ever happens in the basement! Of course, Elizabeth disobeys, freaking out when she sees a row of cryogenic tanks, filled with her exact replica, submerged in some kind of amniotic fluid. When Henry discovers her disobedience, he tries to kill her. His visually impaired son, Oliver, played by Matthew Beard, tries to help his new step-mommy, but not without his own twisted motives for doing so. How does Elizabeth Harvest make our cut? The Oliver character doesn’t use a cane, a guide dog, or a sighted guide. He easily moves around the house based on muscle memory. He’s capable, tenacious, and also proves that not all blind people are innately good. Yeah, you heard me! There is good and bad in everything, and that includes the blind and visually impaired community. Elizabeth Harvest not only delivers eerie entertainment, but a blind character you will love to hate. This movie proves even without sight you can still be the villain (cue the creepy music here).
4) At First Sight (1999): Val Kilmer cirque the late 1990’s already makes this film worth a watch. At First Sight tells the story of a blind man named Virgil (Kilmer) who begins a whirlwind romance with Amy, a successful New York City architect. The two meet while Amy is on vacation in an upstate New York spa where Virgil is employed as a masseuse. The 1999 version of Val Kilmer could give me a massage anytime! Just sayin’! Throughout the film we experience the oppressive circumstances Virgil has been forced to endure, including being abandoned by his father and being suffocated by his overprotective sister. Amy convinces Virgil to have an experimental surgery that restores his eyesight temporarily. Despite having the experience of sight, Virgil’s surgery doesn’t “fix” him emotionally. At First Sight reminds us that blind people aren’t broken and therefore we don’t need to be repaired. Virgil consistently encountered people who wanted to cure his vision loss, instead of helping heal his emotional trauma or loving him for the man that he was. Kilmer does a magnificent job portraying this role and beautifully captures many of the orientation and mobility skills used by the blind and visually impaired community. For Kilmer’s sheer acting genius, the film’s underlying message, and for illustrating many relevant techniques uses by the blind, At First Sight makes our cut!
5) The Miracle Worker (1962): Seriously, did you think we would actually leave The Miracle Worker off our list? Not a chance. The film was adapted for the silver screen by acclaimed director Arthur Penn. Of course, it follows the story of young Helen Keller, a blind-deaf mute, and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, who is working to instruct her how to communicate with others. Both Patty Duke (Helen) and Anne Bancroft (Sullivan) each won an Academy Award for their portrayals of these two historic women. Helen Keller is first seen in her Tuscumbia, Alabama home, living in her own silent world while disrupting the peaceful existence of everyone else in her family. Her parents hire Annie Sullivan to teach Helen to communicate through sign language. Annie’s biggest obstacle becomes Helen’s parents who have indulged her bad behavior and emotional outbursts for years. After some serious advocacy work, Annie convinces Helen’s mom and dad to let her stay alone with their daughter for a few weeks in a separate building on the family’s property. Once confined together, Annie manages to teach Helen how to dress herself and to recite the alphabet by touch. However, Sullivan’s progress draws to a halt when she could not get Helen to understand the connection between the alphabet and what each letter represented. Her frustrated parents take Helen back home where she rapidly slips back into old patterns. One night at the dinner table, Helen knocks over the water pitcher and Annie forcibly drags her outside to refill it. It is here that Duke and Bancroft create one of the most iconic scenes in movie history – the infamous water pump! Thanks to Annie Sullivan, Helen goes onto to become one the most famous, educated, and devoted advocates for the blind that the world has ever known! The Miracle Worker pays tribute not only to Helen, but to all the supportive players in field of education and rehabilitation therapy.
The inclusion of characters with disabilities like blindness in high-profile films is important to help create a more inclusive and understanding society. While we continue to advocate for more disabled actors to work in the movie industry, we cannot ignore that fact that these blind roles have been some of the most notable in cinematography. Performances such as these allow the blind and visually impaired to find a myriad of inspiring, powerful, and even frightening characters with whom they can relate. Have a movie with a positive portrayal of blindness that didn’t make our list? Pass the popcorn and drop us a comment on social media.