It took CJ Jones two years to create Na’vi sign language, featured in “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which allows the Na’vi people on Pandora to communicate underwater and with mythical creatures in some of the movie’s most dazzling sequences.
Director James Cameron enlisted Jones to create the fictionallanguage used in the “Avatar” sequel, nominated for four Oscars at this year’s ceremony on March 12, including best picture. Jones created more than 300 signs and created a language that differs completely from American Sign Language, his first language.
“I taught all of the hearing actors to learn NSL [Na’vi sign language]. And on set, they did a beautiful job,” he said through an interpreter. “And during the film you can see how beautiful the signs are.”
Sign language was also on full display at last year’s Oscars, when “CODA” made history by becoming the first best picture winner to feature a predominantly Deaf cast, and Troy Kotsur became the first Deaf man to win best supporting actor.
While the film’s authentic casting was heralded, it also put a spotlight on the glaring lack of opportunities for Deaf and disabled actors, directors and writers. Many hoped that the film’s success would be a catalyst for Hollywood to tell more inclusive stories. And in the past year, a few notable projects have featured disabled artists and stories, including Jones’ work on the “Avatar” sequel and some television episodes like “The Last of Us.”
GBH News checked in with industry professionals, who say that while there has been some progress, there is still a long way to go. And that representation is important, because many disabled consumers say media portrayals affect how they are perceived in the real world.
The reality is that seeming-success stories like “CODA” don’t always have spillover effects, according to Dom Evans, a writer, director and co-founder of FilmDis, a media watchgroup that studies disability representation.
“It never produces the boom in representation we think,” Evans said.
‘Groundbreaking’ accessibility on set
Jones has worked in the entertainment industry for 40 years as an actor, producer, director and consultant. But as a Black Deaf professional, his own journey through Hollywood has been filled with ups and downs.
“I've hit a lot of walls, discrimination,” he said.
But, things are starting to change. Jones served as the director of ASL on the hit HBO show “The Last of Us,” about a post-apocalyptic America, including Boston, in which a fungal infection has taken over the world. He worked with Keivonn Woodard, the 10-year-old Deaf actor who played Sam. Jones called Keivonn’s performance a “breakthrough.”
“There have been almost no young Deaf Black actors in any TV, movie [or] stage,” he said.
Jones said the HBO show was also the first time he taught sign language on set to a Black hearing actor, Lamar Johnson, who played Sam’s brother Henry. As director of ASL, Jones would read the script and send videos of himself signing to Johnson, who would study them carefully.
“He [Johnson] wanted to represent authentic sign language in his communication with Keivonn,” Jones said. “And I think it was beautiful. I really appreciate his determined artistic work.”
Jones also taught the cast and crew about Deaf culture and was on set to help as they filmed.
Star Bella Ramsey already knew some British Sign Language, and continued to learn ASL. She and Keivonn were “inseparable” on set, Jones said. Pedro Pascal also knew some sign language from a past project.
The support HBO provided on set was “groundbreaking,” Jones said, and crucial to supporting Keivonn and creating authentic representation reflected on screen.
“It was just a beautiful transformation with the producers and the writers, director of photography, the actors,” he said. “Everyone came together to discuss how to make accessibility clear for Keivonn to be able to feel comfortable with his role.”
Creating a pipeline of talent, in front of the camera and behind
Many industry professionals said that authentic representation starts behind the camera, especially in writers’ rooms.
A recent episode of the NBC medical drama “New Amsterdam” — which features a Deaf actress as one of the recurring characters — featured a storyline about a young Deaf boy with behavioral problems. A pediatrician had previously advised his parents to not teach him sign language. During the episode, a doctor explained to the parents that medicine is still too often “filtered through the able-bodied perspective” and encouraged them to enroll him in a bilingual sign language program.
The episode was written by Gisselle Legere, one of only about three deaf writers in the Writers Guild of America West, which has about 20,000 members. Legere wanted to show a story that was based on her own experiences growing up.
“Deafness is not a monolithic experience. How you experience deafness depends on your access to sign language. It depends on the community around you,” she said. “And so that can look very different from person to person. And I hadn't seen that on TV at that point.”
David Radcliff, co-chair of the Disabled Writers Committee at the Writers Guild of America West, said the dearth of disabled stories is often because of the power that the “gatekeepers” in the entertainment industry hold.
“I don't think it's through any act of malice that these stories aren't told. I think it's a combination of indifference, lack of knowledge and awareness, and also, sadly, discomfort,” Radcliff said.
Hiring more disabled people in writing and production jobs could help, although there can be obstacles. For example, Radcliff said that many TV writing jobs go to people who are writer’s assistants, a job usually involving going to grab coffee and lunch for writers — not always jobs that are accessible for someone like him who uses a wheelchair.
Radcliff wrote on the Netflix children’s show “Waffles + Mochi.” The first episode features characters visiting a restaurant owned by a Deaf family, which came directly from Radcliff’s suggestion that it was important to show fully formed Deaf characters who are employed and working.
“Fortunately, I've been in several spaces now as a writer where I really feel like my voice makes a difference,” he said.
Shira Ruderman, executive director of the Boston-based Ruderman Family Foundation, and a member of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures' board of trustees, says that “peer power” can help influence powerful studios to commit to creating more inclusive stories.
The foundation has advocated that major Hollywood studios increase disability talent both in front of and behind the camera. CBS Entertainment, NBCUniversal, Paramount Pictures and Sony Pictures Entertainment have signed a pledge to increase opportunities for actors with disabilities.
“The peer power here works because if one studio signs, another studio wants to sign,” she said.
‘Desperate to see ourselves’
A study released last November by the National Research Group found that more than half of Deaf consumers say they “rarely” or “never” see their identities represented in film and TV, and that Deaf people of color are even less common on screen. And when Deaf consumers do see themselves, it’s often negative — 70% of respondents said Deaf characters are usually seen as “objects of pity” or “in need of help.”
For FilmDis’s most recent research project, Evans and their partner watched 250 television shows released from 2020 to 2022. The study found that the number of shows featuring at least one disabled character slightly decreased from the prior period, while the number of disabled characters overall increased. Deaf/hard of hearing was among the least represented disabilities, with just 17 characters of 1,342.
“Disabled people are still so desperate to see ourselves,” Evans said.
Evans noted that while “The Last of Us” was praised for featuring a Deaf character played by a Deaf actor, the show’s writers explained in a behind-the-scenes interview that, in contrast to the video game the show is based on, they chose to make Sam Deaf in part to make him more reliant on his brother.
"Disabled people are still so desperate to see ourselves."-Dom Evans, FilmDis
An earlier episode in the same series featured a plotline that some have criticized for promoting a harmful trope. The episode — spoiler alert — focused on two men living outside Boston, played by Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett, who meet after the outbreak and fall in love. But years later when one becomes seriously ill and starts to use a wheelchair, they both decide to die by suicide.
Evans said disabled people can internalize that message and think less of their own lives.
“So every person who watches a ‘better dead than disabled’ narrative is absorbing that… imagine if the only messages you see are stories like this. And this is a major storyline we see over and over and over,” Evans said. “This is why I'm so drawn to the work, because I was a kid who was influenced by the media.”
Radcliff says the “real test” for the impact of “CODA” will be what the actors do next. Troy Kotsur is set to star in the upcoming drama “Flash Before the Bang,” a true story about an all-Deaf high school track and field team.
“Will Troy Kotsur have the opportunities that other best supporting actor winners have had to play, you know, a businessman or a teacher or a lover or the neighbor or a lawyer?” Radcliff said. “Or will his projects be specific to deafness?”
Jones said that Keivonn has already been cast in his next project, a short film called “Fractal.” But he acknowledges that it will be difficult at times for Keivonn to find roles.
Jones is busy at work, hoping for more acting roles for himself, and organizing Sign Light in Los Angeles next November, a film festival that will spotlight movies made by Deaf filmmakers. He’s looking forward to the launch of a streaming platform that features all kinds of content in sign language.
It’s time for Hollywood to see Deaf and disability inclusion as an opportunity, and not a risk.
“Now it's their turn to invest in us, in how to make things accessible,” he said. “What can you do to make the Deaf community part of the movie industry worldwide? And that's the message that I'm pushing right now.”