The 2001 movie I Am Sam moves beyond the role of an entertaining film and into the function of a social dissertation on the cultural depiction of disability in contemporary life. Directed by Jessie Nelson (Megan Dowdy, 2009), I Am Sam follows a mentally challenged father, on his integral pursuit to regain custody of his 7 year old daughter Lucy. As a result, I am Sam received acknowledgment for its aptitude and capability to approach the susceptible subject of cerebral disabilities and parenting.
In 2002, the Producers Guild of America awarded the producers and directors of the film with the first Stanley Kramer award for their ability to bring understanding to collective concerns. (Goodridge, 2002), therefore, the arrangement of the views articulated in this film can be assessed to establish how the representation of Sam as a disabled person fits within social constructs. I Am Sam show’s two distinct techniques that framework influence of perception: the medical model and the social model.
Medical Model In the medical model, societal perception is found in the physiological or psychological cause of the disability (Darke, P. 1997). As a result, disability is viewed as an illness that must be cured. According to editors Ann Pointon and Chris Davies, in the medical model, “it is the impairment that constitutes the disability, made worse or better by the individual’s own attitude towards it”. In the medical model, the resolution for dealing with disability is particular; as a whole, disability and any symptoms of abnormality must be cured in order to be classed ‘typical’. Although an individual’s attitude can help or harm the situation, the act of being disabled can only be solved through curing the impairment (Darke, P. 1997). This standpoint conforms to the shared view that “people must change to fit the norm of society, instead of society changing to fit the diversity of people” (Megan Dowdy, 2009).
A specific scene throughout this movie expresses the medical model well. Sam attempts to hire a very high-powered lawyer, Rita Harrison, in order to regain custody *PLAY HUGGING RITA SCENE*. The classification of Sam with his disabilities leads to mechanical portrayals of him as a social outcast. He is characterized in terms that reflect that he is an undesirable member of society, whose friendship or companionship is not needed. Before Rita makes an effort to pursue a friendship with Sam later on in the film, at first she becomes medically aware of him by his disability. After telling Sam that she will be his lawyer pro bono, he passionately and excitedly pulled her in to hug her. In retort, Rita looked disgusted. Following, she then wiped her hands very quickly, showing that to a person of ‘normal class’ that something about Sam was dirty or sickening.
Rita is only able to approach and make friends with Sam after she begins to be thankful for his kindness. In Rita’s point of view, Sam loses his grotesqueness once she is able to categorize him as Sam and not by his disability (Megan Dowdy 2009), as shown in this scene *PLAY ORIGAMI BARRIER SCENE* Sam creates the origami barricade which he sits inside, with Rita responding by staring at Sam through a small opening in the obstruction, with a camera angle only providing an extreme close up of his face from her point of view. Through her perspective of this scene, Sam is the focus of the entire screen. This portrays an epiphany as to when Rita begins to focus on Sam as merely a normal human being, and being able to look further than his medical disabilities.
Accompanying this is the lighting of the scene. The lighting becomes warm when society allows Sam to establish relationships with people. The origami scene possesses a more intensified brightness, in comparison to when Sam first met Rita at her office. This shows contrast, proving that Sam is at his happiest when being able to converse with people. Though the scene itself is one where Sam is truly upset, the lighting addresses that when Sam has been upset in the past he has had no one to confide in due to collective stereotypes of which he and his friends are well aware of.
At one point of the film, a medical model is further explored when Sam and his friends carefully try to mask their disabilities when Sam is setting up his new answering machine. Sam decides that in order to be a good father he must sound like he is not mentally impaired, and in the words of Brad his friend, Sam must “sound like a normal person” (Nelson, 2001) instead of being identified by a disability.
Social Model In the social model, societal instability is embedded in the attitudes and institutional framework neighboring disability (Darke, P. 1997). In the view of the social model, tribulations are formed not by the disability itself, but the culture and surroundings the disability is positioned into. As a result, if people with disabilities are powerless to medically cure their impairments, then they are not automatically problems of society. Alternatively, communication with them determines their societal rank (Megan Dowdy, 2009).Unlike the medical model, in the social model, there is no tangible therapy for the disability. The cultural perception of disability changes as society matures or otherwise transforms. According to editors Pointon and Davies, in the social model, “disability is thus not a fixed condition but a social construct and open to action and modification. One may have an impairment (or ‘condition’) but in the right setting and with the right aids and attitudes one may not be disabled by it” (1997, p. 2).
An example of using the social model throughout the text is the opening scene of I Am Sam. *OPENING SUGAR PACKET SCENE*. Fundamentals of the social model are evidenced during a depiction of a Sam that is enabled. In the social model, Sam is not recognized by his disability but by who he is as a human being. In the opening of the movie, the social model becomes apparent through Sam’s perspective. In the course of shots that show only Sam’s hands arranging sugar packets and completing tasks to ready Starbucks to open, the opening first introduces Sam as an effective, hard working member of society. Only later does the camera zoom out and viewers realize that Sam has a disability.
Supporting the social model of this scene is the artistic component of sound. Jessie Nelson has purposely opened this movie with the preliminary tempo of Sam’s life. As rhythmic percussion side by side a wind instrument, the trouble-free, positive beat plays the methodic way in which Sam lives his life. At the start of the movie, Sam has a programmed pace in his life; he works during the days, eats at IHOP on Wednesday nights, and then has movie nights with his friends (J Nelson, 2001). The slow, optimistic beat of the score reflects Sam’s capability to take power over life procedures and positively cooperate in society. All viewers throughout that scene are not prejudice about a disability, however the second the camera is drawn away; viewers make assumptions and feel differently about Sam when realizing he is impaired. Towards the end of the movie, it becomes apparent that Lucy will be no better looked after by anyone other than Sam.
When being interrogated and asked what it is Sam can give Lucy by the opposition in court, Lucy simply replies “All I need is Love”, accentuating the fact that disability should be no barrier between love and affection, as everyone, including Lucy’s potential adoptive mother soon comes to find out. *PLAY APOLOGY SCENE* this scene perfectly triumphs the final message of the movie that both social and medical perceptions, cannot prevail over love. Love in this film brings everyone together, proving that overcoming stereotypical boundaries in regards to mental disabilities helps create a lessening in prejudice behaviour and degradation.
This film has very successfully raised awareness, and certainly given insight as to how people with a mental disability are no different to people perceived as ‘normal’. Sam is able to hold onto a paying job, build friendships and live on his own without care as shown through all movie scenes viewed today. People with a cerebral disability have the tools to live a normal life, however are often not given the chance. As stated previously, in today’s culture there is perception that people must change to fit the norm of society, instead of society changing to fit the diversity of people, and this film creates nothing less than a perfect approach to change that opinion.
Courtney from Study Moose
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