How The Peanut Butter Falcon is a step forward in representing people with disabilities

Of the hundred most popular films released in 2017, 2.5% of the characters in these films were described as having a disability. Of this amount, the majority were described as having a physical or communication disability. On television, a study shows that 95% of characters portrayed with a disability were interpreted by actors without a disability. It is very rare for our screens to be graced with a feature film or series featuring a disabled character played by a disabled actor. A notable exception is that of 2019 The Peanut Butter Falcon. movie stars Zack Gottsagen, a leading man born with Down syndrome. Which makes The Peanut Butter Falcon such an important step in the right direction for the portrayal of disability in film is not just in the casting, but in the way the story unfolds.


Gottsagen plays Zak, an aspiring wrestler who escapes from his state-funded residential retirement home in Virginia and embarks on a journey to attend his professional hero’s wrestling school in North Carolina. He is helped along the way by Tyler (Shia Labeouf), a fisherman who flees the law, and is pursued by Eleanor (dakota johnson), his primary caretaker at the nursing home. The storyline that unfolds from here is what happens when someone acts with self-determination and pursues their goal without fear of failure – a storyline also mirrored by Gottsagen’s journey with making the film.

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In the world of disability services, there is a philosophy of the dignity of risk. This philosophy has been defined as follows: “The dignity of risk is the idea that self-determination and the right to take reasonable risks are essential to dignity and self-esteem and therefore should not be hindered by overly cautious carers, mindful of their duty to care.” The duty of care referred to is the responsibility of a carer or director support professional (DSP) to ensure that the person they are supporting does not harm to themselves or others and that they are free from immediate harm This legal duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of others can too often lead people with disabilities in situations where they have overzealous gatekeepers who say anything and everything to “protect” them from failure Caregivers and DSPs should want to do all they can to help individuals succeed, but being denied the experience of failure is the nthesis of a meaningful life.

Zak starts the movie stuck in this rut. He lives in a residential facility he doesn’t feel he belongs in, but as Eleanor candidly explains to him, he’s there because the state put him there. He’s a 22-year-old man living in a nursing home that’s usually for the elderly, and he exists in this system that’s not designed for him. This is a reality for many people with disabilities. Due to a lack of access to resources or entrenched bureaucracy, young people with disabilities feel stuck in nursing homes receiving care they could receive in a free-standing home or community-embedded setting . Opportunities for autonomy are limited in long-term care facilities, and with the shadow of institutionalization looming large over recent history, it is critically important to continue to expand freedoms of choice for people with disabilities. . Frustrated with his situation and longing for this freedom of choice, Zak escapes from the nursing home and pursues his dream of becoming a professional wrestler.

Due to her relationship with Zak, Eleanor is tasked by her supervisor, Glen (Lee Spencer), with finding Zak before he has to report the incident to the state – which Eleanor rightly points out he absolutely should do immediately. Glen characterizes Zak as a helpless “boy” with no life experience and castigates Eleanor for letting him get away; despite how sternly he blames Eleanor, it’s clearly an issue he doesn’t want to deal with directly. Eleanor finds out about the wrestling school and gets to work finding Zak. As much as she clearly cares more about Zak’s well-being, Eleanor still subscribes to the same belief that Zak is entirely helpless without the imposed structure of the nursing home, and that panicked sense of protection is what drives her search.

It is this belief that leads her to clash with Tyler once she finally catches up with Zak. Eleanor insists that Zak needs to come back to the nursing home for professional care, while Tyler argues that it’s better for Zak to “live his life”. As they argue, Zak makes his own decision and throws Eleanor’s car keys into the waves. Forced to come around in order to keep an eye on Zak, Eleanor constantly adores him, but begins to see how Zak thrives outside of the nursing home. When she catches up with Glen on the phone and discovers that he intends to move Zak to a more intensive facility for at-risk residents, Eleanor joins the team and helps him travel to North Carolina to meet the Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). She puts Zak’s fulfillment ahead of the rules, regulations, paperwork, and bars on the windows that await Zak in Virginia.

Not everything is perfectly clean for Zak after he leaves the nursing home. He encounters unknown challenges and frightening situations. He also makes friends and learns new things about himself. And, spoiler alert, he doesn’t become a professional wrestler at the end – he finds out the school is closed and his hero is retired. But he is having critical life experiences that he otherwise would not have had, while receiving natural support from the people who accompany him on his journey. It’s a trajectory that mirrors Gottsagen’s journey in filmmaking.

The Peanut Butter Falcon would not exist without Zack Gottsagen. Gottsagen trained as an actor all his life and met the directors of the film, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, in a theater camp for actors with and without disabilities. The duo were impressed with Gottsagen’s talents. Recognizing the slim chance of a movie starring an actor with Down syndrome getting funded in today’s Hollywood, they were convinced by Gottsagen to write a movie that only he could make headlines. Indeed, finding backers for the film proved difficult. “Every step of the way has been a little difficult,” Nilson says in an interview on This morning. “We were told it wouldn’t be marketable, that people wouldn’t see it in theaters…because it’s not a marketable face.” Which, it must be said, is simply not true.

The team was offered money to recast Gottsagen with a top-tier actor, which ipso facto functionally means replacing Gottsagen with a capable actor. In a way, these executives viewed the film as something they couldn’t figure out how to market. They saw Gottsagen as a risk they didn’t want to take. Obviously, Nilson and Schwartz turned down the offers and stayed with Gottsagen, whose personal drive, talent and ambition gave birth to the project. Much of the film’s content is drawn from Gottsagen’s personal experiences, which is exactly how films featuring disabilities should be made – guided by the lived experiences of people with disabilities in the roles of actors and directors. teams. Although the making of the film was difficult, Gottsagen and his friends Nilson and Schwartz remained unfazed. They took the risk, and it paid off. The directors could have made a misguided attempt to shield Gottsagen from failure, but instead invested in his ambition and took the risk with him. It paid off.

For Zak in the film, the happy ending is a little less obvious. Although the Salt Water Redneck is done wrestling, he is convinced to cast a local fight card for Zak as The Peanut Butter Falcon. His opponent is supposed to take it easy with Zak, but during the match doesn’t hold back and starts beating Zak. Despite the brutality, Zak rises to the occasion and wins the match while saving Tyler from his past catching up with him. In the latest shot, Zak heads to Florida with Eleanor and Tyler, and while we don’t know what happens next, we do know that Zak is going to determine the direction of his own life, rather than making his decisions for him. under the guise of security and protection.

As the world moves forward in promoting the rights of people with disabilities, film can prove to be an important tool. Through inclusive casting and the development of informed stories, films featuring disabilities can help change our culture and shift mindsets. The Peanut Butter Falcon is a clear demonstration that not everything has to be successful to matter, and that the best way to support people with disabilities is to help them get behind the wheel, not strap them into the backseat .

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