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Disability Community Slams New Comedy Movie's 'Idiot Deaf Mute' Character Description

An upcoming comedy from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” actor Charlie Day is being widely criticized by the disability community for a description of the main character as an “idiot deaf mute,” who will be portrayed by Day, a hearing actor. According to Day and the movie’s producers, however, the description is an errantly published mischaracterization of the film.

Titled “El Tonto,” which translates to “The Fool” in English, the comedy was initially described in Variety as a film about “an idiot deaf mute who becomes a celebrity and loses it all.” Variety film reporter Dave McNary hailed Day’s directorial debut, while production company and finacer Armory Films’ Christopher Lemole and Tim Zajaros gushed about the film’s premise and script.

“We’ve been looking to do something with Charlie for a while now,” Lemole and Zajaros said. “The script is hilarious, incredibly original and films like this just don’t get made anymore. We’re thrilled to get in on the ground floor of his directorial career, as we believe the sky’s the limit for him.”

Disability advocate and deaf actress Marlee Matlin caught wind of the 2018 Variety article on Thursday, and other advocates were quick to call out “El Tonto,” Day and Variety online, not only for its use of offensive language, but also because Day is a hearing and speaking actor set to portray a character with disabilities.

According to a USC Annenberg study, less than 3% of all characters in major movies include prominent roles for characters with disabilities, and most of the time these roles go to actors without disabilities. At the Media Access Awards on Nov. 14, deaf actress Shoshannah Stern explained why authentic representation is so important in film.

“I would love to say that I’ve already seen good disability representation that’s not authentic, but I haven’t,” Stern told The Mighty, adding:

No matter how talented actor is, how committed they are, they’re still not living the truth. They are dipping in and out of the truth. So when the cameras stops rolling, they step out of it, then that’s not authentic. You lose an opportunity there. To educate. You lose opportunities for people to learn how it is to communicate with a person, how it is to make the set accessible, etc. So all of that is lost. The person is just playing the role that they could take off — it’s almost like a costume that they could take off at the end of the day — and disability is not a costume.

In a response to Matlin’s tweet posted on Instagram, however, Day explained that he is not the one to describe the main character in “El Tonto” as deaf or mute and said Variety’s description mischaracterized the premise of the film.

“The character is neither ‘deaf’ nor ‘mute,'” Day wrote. “Just a silent character like Mr. Bean. I’m not sure how exactly Variety got that description but it’s unfortunate and not at all what the movie is about. I hope you will pass this along.”

When reached for comment by The Mighty, Armory Films producer Lemole confirmed what Day posted on Instagram — Variety’s coverage of “El Tonto” missed the mark on the premise of the movie. Lemole explained “El Tonto” is a nod to the silent film era, where Day’s lead character is a fool for love a reminiscent of classic silent film characters like Mr. Bean or Charlie Chaplin. And while Day’s character doesn’t speak in the film, he does not have any disabilities.

Lemole said Armory Films is committed to positive disability representation, highlighting his company was also involved in producing the critically acclaimed film “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” which starred Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down syndrome.

When reached for comment, a Variety spokesperson said reporter McNary got the “idiot deaf mute” description directly from an Armory Films press release. A republished version of the press release indicates this is half true: McNary misquoted and added “deaf,” but the rest of the press release said “El Tonto” “follows an idiot mute (Day).”

Variety has since issued a correction to its 2018 “El Tonto” coverage to remove the word “idiot” from its article with a note reading, “The article was revised due to the inclusion of insensitive language. Variety apologizes for the error.” Other outlets, including Collider and AV Club, also chose to quote the film press release directly instead of removing the offensive “idiot” language.

It’s not the first time an entertainment press release with descriptions to describe disabilities or mental illness that are offensive to people with lived experience made it to publication word-for-word, highlighting the need for better disability representation in journalism and marketing as well. In July, Deadline reported director Peter Farrelly and the producers behind “13 Seasons Why” were developing a “suicide comedy,” which raised concern among mental health advocates.

When reached for comment, however, Farrelly told The Mighty via email Deadline’s characterization of the comedy, called “The Now,” was not accurate and did not at all reflect his intention for the TV series.

“I’m horrified that this show is being described as a ‘suicide comedy,’” Farrelly said, adding:

I hope that’s not how it was described in all press releases. That’s awful. And it’s not true. Yes, it is about a man who’s family has a history of suicide, and who, in fact, contemplated suicide himself before recognizing that he’d been living his life the wrong way. To alter the course of his life, the man makes an effort to live in the now, meaning to live in this very moment, as opposed to always fearing the future or regretting the past.

According to Deadline, “El Tonto” will also star Kate Beckinsale, Adrien Brody, Ken Jeong, Jason Sudeikis, Ray Liotta, Common, Edie Falco, Jillian Bell and John Malkovich. Lemole said the movie is now in post-production and getting closer to completion for a public release.

The Mighty has reached out to Charlie Day for comment and has yet to hear back.

Header image via Carlie Day’s Instagram