It is safe to say that Black Panther made history in box offices both within the United States and worldwide within a relatively short period of time. Some viewers loved it so much, they kept returning to watch the movie while it remained in theaters. However, others did not enjoy their time in the theater – and for once, it had nothing to do with the movie itself but rather in how the movie was presented exclusively for able-bodied people.
The winner of Season 22 of America’s Next Top Model, deaf model Nyle DiMarco, caused a lot of discussion within the online community earlier this year after sharing his attempt at seeing Black Panther as an auditory disabled person. When DiMarco arrived at the theater and indicated that he needed subtitles, the theater provided a clunky, ineffective, and ill-timed subtitle machine that made his experience so uncomfortable, he couldn’t enjoy the movie and ended up leaving. He expressed his intense frustration for the entire situation in an op-ed for Teen Vogue.
“Captioning enhances the viewing experience,” DiMarco wrote. “It should be a standard part of any filmed media, and not as an afterthought, but as a part of the ultimate golden standard of universal design.”
Nyle DiMarco also mentioned possible solutions, such as an option in his childhood where there would be open-subtitle screenings for viewers who required it. This practice eventually was replaced with the embarrassing machine given to him during Black Panther, he mused… and it coincided with him no longer watching movies in theaters.
Unsurprisingly, some of the Internet did not take kindly to DiMarco’s polite request for subtitles for movies. One person even went as far as tweeting, “Imagine falling in love with someone just to find out they watch TV with subtitles” – to which DiMarco replied, “Retweet if you use subtitles.” The tweet, as of writing this, has over a hundred thousand retweets.
The real question is, why the vehement hate for subtitles – and why have we failed people who enjoy media just like us? For every comment agreeing with DiMarco’s op-ed, for every comment agreeing that subtitles are necessary for an enjoyable viewing experience, there is a kind person politely reminding deaf people that they have no business in a movie theater, and a line of words on the bottom of the screen will unequivocally destroy their viewing experience permanently. These people share a common agreement – because they will be inconvenienced by subtitles, everyone should ignore the fact that an entire group of people is made uncomfortable and embarrassed to enjoy media in public. There is something very self-centered about assuming that because you enjoy something a certain way, everyone should.
People who are hard of hearing are not the only ones who will benefit from subtitles in movie theaters. Thick accents, fast speaking and dialogue interspersed with action sounds are all examples of instances where subtitles can help clarify what a viewer is watching. No one complains when a foreign language exchange happens, and onscreen subtitles pop up to translate. Imagine the last time you watched a movie where a foreign language was spoken, and the subtitles didn’t pop up (for comedic or dramatic effect). Did you feel lost? Confused? Maybe even a little anxious that you were missing something? Surprise – many people, hard of hearing and not, feel that way as well on the regular. It is hard for them to understand and they are left out of the loop – something which is completely preventable.
There are many possible solutions for subtitles in theaters, especially since it seems to be a point of such contention. One is DiMarco’s idea of open-subtitled movies, only instead of on limited days, there could be a designated day a week for subtitled movies. Another option is reserving one of the big screens within the theatre as a designated subtitle-only zone. Once the response is gaged, then theatres can investigate possibly expanding their services.
I am not hard-of-hearing myself. However, I do often find myself rewinding back movies without subtitles and shows while watching them because of accents, mumbling actors or just being unable to understand what is going on. As far as I know, I do not have a disability; however, I do benefit from watching with subtitles by an increased comprehension in whatever it is I am currently viewing. I remember attempting to watch a movie with a friend once. She was enjoying herself but I couldn’t understand what was going on. So, with her permission, I changed the settings so that I could read the subtitles. Her entire demeanor changed – sulking, fidgeting and generally completely changed. Why? “The subtitles ruin the experience.”
At the time, the encounter hurt my feelings; now, after reading DiMarco’s tweets and his op-ed, I have thought about it more deeply. There are an estimated 1 in 20 deaf people in the United States, and an unknown number of people who, like me, need subtitles for clarification. There are countless Americans who think subtitles are a distraction and are not needed. While sites like Netflix and Hulu are transforming the media business through fast streaming, high quality and subtitles, there needs to be a change at the most traditional, enjoyable event – simply enjoying a movie in theaters with your family.
The same is true in college classes – at a recent college event I attended, we had a frank discussion about accessibility in the classroom. Many of my peers admitted that subtitles in the classroom were annoying, obstructed the screen and distracted from the movie. Only after learning that there was a hearing-impaired student in the room did they settle down and feel guilty. However, why did it have to go that far? What if there was a student who was shy and didn’t understand? What if I was in that classroom – having to nearly cross my eyes concentrating to understand what is happening because I can’t follow along with what the video is saying? There needs to be a change – and it can start wherever you are, whether in a college classroom, a movie theater or even just at home with your friends.
In the past few years, there have been improvements for people hard of hearing. There are American Sign Language interpreters at concerts instead of just events. Hard of hearing roles in movies – despite being played by able-bodied actors – are becoming available. Just last year, the dark fairy-tale The Shape of Water opened in theaters to ecstatic reviews. It featured a deaf woman whose disability was not an obstacle to pursuing her dreams and her love. The deaf character was played by an able-bodied actress. The movie was shown without subtitles in theaters, meaning many deaf people opted to watch it online. However, it was still a chance…and one Nyle DiMarco is proud of. That chance might be extended to subtitles yet – there is no telling what the future will bring.
Lead Image Credit: Unsplash