'Sound of Metal' is getting award season buzz: Did it do things right by the deaf community?

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David Oliver, USA TODAY
·5 min read
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Riz Ahmed's performance as Ruben, a drummer who loses his hearing, in "Sound of Metal" has earned rave reviews from critics and audiences alike – not to mention praise from the deaf community, something difficult for a hearing actor to achieve.

Ahmed has been nominated for a Golden Globe and already won best actor at the Gotham Independent Film Awards and the National Board of Review, and Paul Raci, who plays his deaf mentor Joe, has picked up several similarly smaller-scale supporting actor wins as well. Ahmed and Raci have also been generating Oscar buzz.

It's clear that "Sound of Metal" did the work to respect the deaf community, though left room for improvement – and sparked a critical conversation about representing the deaf community in Hollywood.

The audience embarks on an auditory journey with Ruben. His simple ability to rock out loud and proud on the drums crumbles when he loses his hearing out of nowhere.

In case you missed: How Riz Ahmed worked to honor deaf culture in 'Sound of Metal'

"It was so clear, and to the point with how deaf individuals navigate the world without language accessibility," Isidore Niyongabo, president of the executive board of the National Black Deaf Advocates, tells USA TODAY.

Donna L. Sorkin, the executive director of the American Cochlear Implant Alliance, says that Ruben's portrayal of losing his hearing was close to what many have experienced.

Ruben spends time embedded in the deaf community and learns sign language. He ultimately decides to receive a cochlear implant, an electronic device meant to help him regain his hearing. But his hearing doesn't sound like it used to; it sounds metallic.

"That wasn't the case for me, but it's different for everybody," Sorkin says. "And a lot of people, including scientists in the field said that was really accurate."

Ahmed, who spent seven months learning American Sign Language in preparation for the role, told USA TODAY late last year it would've been impossible to represent everyone. Ahmed wore auditory blockers during filming.

"The thing I realized very quickly in researching this world is there is no representing hearing loss at large," he said at the time. "Hearing loss is a unique experience that’s different for everyone."

And another: How Riz Ahmed's 'Sound of Metal' aims to bridge important gap between hearing audiences, deaf community

Sorkin took issue with some of the plot points surrounding Ruben's surgery. For example: The doctor in the film tells Ruben his cochlear implants aren't covered by health insurance, but according to the FDA as of 2004, "more than 90 percent of all commercial health plans cover cochlear implants."

Also, Ruben swiftly experiences rejection from the deaf community. That's not how it necessarily would've gone down, according to experts, though cochlear implants are a sore subject.

Not every ex-hearing person wants to become hearing again, Niyongabo says. He wishes the film could have been more focused on deafness as diversity rather than deafness as disability.

"We are not broken," Niyongabo says. "We are deaf, and my disability as a deaf person is a hearing person’s inability to understand my language."

Ahmed previously told USA TODAY: "Ruben swings between seeing deafness as a loss and a disability and realizing that deafness is actually a culture and an opportunity to connect more deeply with himself and others."

To that end, "There’s a complete disconnect between the deaf community and Hollywood," Nanci Linke-Ellis, who has spent decades on deaf accessibility and inclusion in film, said on a panel in October of last year. "It’s a work in progress. Films like this help progress it."

Hollywood can (and should be) thinking about more effective inclusion. For example, if you're going to show sign language, don't cut the signs short, Niyongabo says, noting when Ruben starts signing his name and the audience only sees him spell the letter "R," it hinders the deaf perspective of the scene.

Adrienne Gravish, a deaf associate consultant and artist, wishes the camera would've stopped going out of focus. She hoped to witness deeper connections characters were making instead of losing out on signed conversations.

That said: "I think it's the only movie that I've ever seen that has a balanced perspective, both from a hearing perspective, as well as deaf perspective," Niyongabo says.

Jeremy Lee Stone, who played an ASL teacher in the movie, assisted hearing director Darius Marder during filming.

Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO and Director of Legal Services for the National Association of the Deaf, says that Hollywood must establish expectations, standards and inclusion riders to ensure employment of deaf actors, directors and writers.

Casting a hearing person in the role of Joe didn't go over well for some in the community, which Raci has acknowledged. He is the child of deaf adults (CODA), however.

"I hear people saying, why is this hearing guy playing a deaf role?" Raci told IndieWire. "And my role, too! So (Ahmed) and I are gonna get some flak. The thing is, there’s the deaf world (and) there’s the hearing world. What you call these people that you see in the movie, they’re culturally deaf like my parents. (Ahmed), Ruben, is not culturally deaf. He’s a hearing guy who lost his hearing; same thing with Joe."

Even so, Gravish wants Hollywood to become comfortable letting deaf people play themselves.

Calls for more inclusion came up during a Q&A for the movie "CODA" at this year's Sundance Film Festival. "We need to hire more deaf actors. Simple as that," Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, who stars in the movie, said, later adding they should be men and women of all colors.

Contributing: Andrea Mandell

Sundance 2021: 'CODA' star Marlee Matlin talks inclusion, calls on Hollywood to 'hire more deaf actors'

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Sound of Metal' awards season contender mixed with deaf community