Over the last few weeks, “The Wolf of Wall Street” has become a blockbuster hit, earning millions of dollars at the box office. The film, which tells the story of stockbroker Jordan Belfort, is highly acclaimed and has been nominated for several of the film industry’s most prestigious awards.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is also getting buzz for other reasons. A recent article in U.S. News and World Report highlighted disability groups’ objection to the film’s use of the R-word and depiction of people with disabilities. The Arc of Pennsylvania is particularly offended by the depth of insults to people with disabilities. There is the scene in which Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) compares his behavior after an overdose of Quaaludes to having cerebral palsy and then goes on to perform a lengthy “physical humor” scene, trying to walk down steps and drive his car. Had I been watching the film with a friend with a disability, I would have been mortified when the theater erupted in laughter during this scene. DiCaprio’s performance would have been just as hilarious without any reference to cerebral palsy.
Even more offensive was the scene with Donnie (played by Jonah Hill) describing what he would do if he had a child with disabilities: Take the child for a ride in the country and open the car door; or, he would do what everyone else does and drop the child off at an institution. If only people with disabilities were not the object of abuse and incarceration. While trying to be humorous, parents of children with disabilities in the audience are brought to tears.
Another unsettling aspect of the film was that while it made liberal use of the R-word, it stopped short of saying the N-word in full. For some reason, a film that is deliberately excessive in order to criticize distasteful behavior, that did not deem the use of the N-word acceptable, still found it permissible to use the R-word in a derogatory manner.
This distinction tells those who are watching the film that uttering racial slurs is completely unacceptable, but a person with a disability is still someone that can be made the subject of jokes.
Those involved with the film maintain that it is a cautionary tale, and that its tone is purposely over the top because it is criticizing the gratuitous lifestyle of the wealthy and the powerful on Wall Street. The glib use of the R-word and negative portrayals of any type of disability reinforces hurtful stereotypes about and further marginalizes people with disabilities. Among those who have gone to see the film are individuals with disabilities, their families and their friends. Filmmakers have no idea how much their art can cause harm and humiliation.
There was a point in our recent history when use of the N-word and other racial epithets in film and television met little, if any, objection. Since then, use of racial slurs in the entertainment industry has significantly declined and always incurs public outcry.
There will be a day when offensive words about, and disparaging images of, people with disabilities will be met with the same disapproval. The Arc of Pennsylvania enlists the help of all who care to tell Hollywood it’s time to banish use of the R-word, end damaging depictions of people with disabilities and be a trailblazer in this inevitable societal shift.
Maureen Cronin is executive director of The Arc of Pennsylvania, the state’s largest advocacy organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.