Deaf director Eli Steele thought he found the perfect leading man for his 2005 film. That didn't matter to one vocal community.

Filmmaker Michael Mailer was recently accused of “crip-face” for casting Alec Baldwin as a blind man in the newly released film, “Blind.”

Jay Ruderman, an advocate for the inclusion of blind individuals into society, argued in the Los Angeles Times that if blackface was no longer acceptable then “disability as a costume needs to also become universally unacceptable.”

Ruderman gambled that the moral authority granted to him by today’s identity politics would allow him to shame Mailer to his knees with the charge of cultural appropriation.

Mailer didn’t buckle, and rightfully so.

The lure of identity politics has always been its promise to engineer a more equitable society by lifting the underrepresented. Yet what happened to Mailer revealed identity politics to be a suffocating force that seeks to regulate all aspects of society, including the arts, into its narrow confines.

Twelve years ago, I was in Mailer’s shoes.

I produced a film called “What’s Bugging Seth” that featured a deaf man in the lead role. As someone who was born profoundly deaf, my instinct was to seek a deaf actor to play Seth. He would know the deaf nuances intimately. To complicate things further, Seth’s love interest was also disabled: a double-leg amputee.

We sent out casting notices across America to centers that worked with disabled individuals. We opened our auditions to all comers, disabled or not. The deaf actors that auditioned were not right – mostly because they were too old to play 23-year-old Seth.

Then Ross Thomas walked in.

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He was not deaf and his take on deafness was quite offensive. But there was something compelling about him and I sent him away with directions. At the next audition, his improvement was significant but still off. What kept him alive was that his persistence and passion was Seth to the core. At the fifth audition, he produced a deaf accent along with mannerisms that reminded me exactly of one of my deaf friends.

Shortly after casting a hearing man in the role of a deaf man, we found a young woman who recently lost both legs. She never acted before but when she auditioned with Thomas she was a natural. Her name is Amy Purdy and she eventually went on to “Dancing With the Stars” fame.

“What’s Bugging Seth” won over 10 film festivals. At several screenings large crowds of deaf people took in the film. After the credits rolled, they were enthusiastic in their praise for Thomas’ performance. We received several standing ovations.

Then, during the Q & A, I would eventually reveal that Thomas was not deaf. Their scorn was immediate. They turned against the film.

Why had I cast a double-leg amputee but not a deaf actor? Was I ashamed of being deaf? At the Ft. Lauderdale Film Festival, I learned for the first time what cultural appropriation meant.

I defended myself in a manner similar to Mailer. Wasn’t it the role of an actor to transcend boundaries and become other lives and experiences? But whites can’t play blacks, my accusers argued. Aside from the legacy of America’s racism, there will always be boundaries that even the best of actors cannot transcend. Yet, it could not be denied that Thomas had become Seth and I believe this is what infuriated my accusers the most.

Like Ruderman, they saw themselves as advocates for a vulnerable minority. In reality, they were mere agents of identity politics and their charge of cultural appropriation was an attempt to regulate me into conformity. Under identity politics, what you are – not who you are – regulates what you can be, say or do.

This achieves the opposite of what art is meant to do: the narrowing of our worlds.

It could not be denied that Thomas had become Seth and I believe this is what infuriated my accusers the mostClick To Tweet

Worse, this type of regulation hurts the very people it claims to help. The demand that disabled people be cast into disabled roles reduces them to one thing: their disability. If they are anything like me, they have spent their entire lives overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles to become something more than their disability. The criterion for casting a role must always be based on the individual’s acting skills, disabled or not.

I have no illusions about the film business. I’ve been to meetings where film executives see the cochlear implant above my ear and their tone changes. But, because of the way I was born, I’ve always known the world to be unfair. The irony is that it was the arts, the most unfair of all places, that gave me the freedom to be who I am.

If Thomas, Mailer, Baldwin and I had submitted to the rules of identity politics, we would have betrayed the very artistic freedoms that inspired us in the first place.


Eli Steele is a filmmaker whose most recent feature, “I Am, Or How Jack Became Black” is available now on streaming services.