CODA Wins Best Picture in Historical Oscar Win for Deaf Community

By Maddi Dolan

On Sunday, March 27, Apple’s CODA brought home three Oscars at the 2022 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Troy Kotsur, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Siân Heder. It is a truly historic win for the Deaf community. 

CODA, which stands for “child of deaf adult,” is a film centered around 17-year-old Ruby Rossi, who is the only hearing member of her working-class family. The heartwarming and inspiring drama follows Ruby as she struggles to find a balance between helping her family with their fishing business and pursuing her love of music.

“The film was so well done from beginning to end,” said Michelle Henry, Coordinator of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program for Hillsborough County Schools and American Sign Language professor at The University of Tampa. “It truly portrays the reality of children of deaf adults. A huge responsibility is placed on their young shoulders as they are the voice of their parents.”

Allyssa Ocampo, sophomore chemistry major, who is enrolled in ASL 101 this semester, describes the film as honest and beautiful.

“It represents life as a deaf person in a hearing world and the struggles and beauty of being deaf,” said Ocampo. “It also represents a child of deaf adults and taking on the responsibility of being a bridge between the two worlds; something that most people will never know. It was honest and beautiful.”

Written and directed by Siân Heder, CODA is the first film with a predominantly deaf cast to win Best Picture, Troy Kotsur is the first-ever deaf male actor to win an Oscar, and Siân Heder received her first-ever Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. 

As the winners were announced at the 94th Annual Academy Awards ceremony, a mix of audible and silent applause filled the room. Much of the audience signed the American Sign Language (ASL) word for “applause” to show their support for the Deaf community.

CODA is the first movie since Child of a Lesser God to showcase the lives of deaf people on the big screen in an impactful way. Until Sunday Night, Troy Kotsur’s CODA co-star, Marlee Matlin, was the only deaf person to ever win an Academy Award, which she historically won in 1987 for her role in Child of a Lesser God.

Troy Kotsur’s Oscar win is an important step for deaf representation in Hollywood. Kotsur gave his acceptance speech in American Sign Language, dedicating his win to the Deaf community, the CODA community and the disabled community. 

“This is our moment,” signed Kotsur.

CODA’s’’ wins are a step in the right direction,” said Mallory Piasse, senior business management major and ASL 101 student. “It proves that you don’t have to be able to hear to chase your dreams, even if your dream job is dominated by hearing people.” 

In the past, the Oscars have rewarded actors without disabilities for playing characters with disabilities. CODA features deaf actors playing deaf characters. Some would argue that Hollywood should have been doing this all along. 

CODA’s historic Best Picture win brings focus to Deaf culture and deaf actors in Hollywood, since it is a story about a predominantly deaf family, and most of the main cast members are deaf. 

“Having deaf movie stars in the spotlight brings awareness to the Deaf community,” said Henry. “Having Marlee Matlin, an experienced deaf actress, in addition to two other deaf actors in the movie, ensures Deaf culture will be portrayed well.” 

Henry believes that Hollywood is getting much better at representing the Deaf, but there’s always room for improvement. 

“It is getting so much better. I think it is on the right trajectory,” said Henry. “Hollywood needs to continue allowing deaf actors and actresses to play deaf roles.” 

CODA not only helped bring awareness to the Deaf community at the Oscars, it also shined light on ASL and ASL interpretation. 

Starting off CODA’s historic wins, this year’s Best Supporting Actor presenter, Youn Yuh-jung, signed Troy Kotsur’s name as he rose to the stage to accept his award. It was also the first time that night that much of the audience could be seen signing their applause for the actor. Kotsur went on to sign a heartfelt speech, interpreted by Justin Mauer. 

CODA writer-director, Siân Heder, also brought an interpreter along with her as she took to the stage to accept her Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, making her speech accessible for her entire cast. 

Finally, at the end of the night the entire cast took center stage to accept the Oscar for Best Picture. With them came multiple interpreters. One to stand on stage and interpret to the audience and viewers at home, and another to stand on the side of the stage to interpret for the cast. 

“One of the most impactful things in my opinion is for others to see the use of a sign language interpreter,” said Henry. “The interpreter signs for the Deaf actors and also voices for them as well. Deaf people often have a difficult time accessing interpreters so hopefully in the future it will become more normalized.”

At this year’s Academy Awards, CODA’s Oscar wins created a historic moment for the Deaf community, one that may change the future of deafness in Hollywood. 

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