As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

The Peanut Butter Falcon (January 2021)

Good morning and welcome to week three of Resilience for a better tomorrow. My first thought for an assembly today was to talk to you about the Bristol Slave Trade – there’s three hundred years of unkindness and human oppression to talk about, dubious legal and moral justifications, stupendous fortunes made from misery, and I could have concluded with Edward Colston’s statue being dumped unceremoniously in the harbour. But then I found myself sidetracked by the similarly named Bristol Stool Chart and decided that I should try to link the two into a single assembly. Unfortunately I haven’t yet managed to piece it together in a way that is both interesting and respectful and so that assembly will have to go on the back burner for a while. I have, however, worked out the punchline which is that the stools and slavers are both pieces of

But I won’t spoil it for you and today’s assembly is not about Bristol at all – continuing the theme from last week’s 8.53s, it’s about a film – The Peanut Butter Falcon. I watched this over the weekend with my family – it’s a fairly charming piece, starring Dakota Johnson, Shia Leboeuf, and the North Carolina coastline. None of those elements, delightful though they are, is the reason that the film is worth discussing this morning. The really interesting thing, I think, is that the third person in the triangle of relationships is played by Zack Gottsagen. You might not have heard of Zack Gottsagen – in fact, if you’ve heard of Zack but haven’t heard of the Peanut Butter Falcon then you have impressively niche tastes: his Imdb entry lists five parts; two are shorts, one is a film in which he plays an unnamed cheerleader, one is still in pre-production and the fifth is the Peanut Butter Falcon.

I hope that some of you are sensing the puzzle here – the incongruity of an unknown 35 year old taking the lead alongside two fairly well-known stars – but I’m not going to try to make you figure it out – I’ve got places to go in this assembly and must crack on.

Zack Gottsagen, like his character Zac in the film, has Down’s Syndrome. One minute on Down’s Syndrome: it is one of the most common genetic disorders and is caused by a third copy of chromosome 21 (chromosomes generally come in pairs – having a third copy of a chromosome other than the smallest one, 21, tends to lead to more severe abnormalities and live births are rare). Down’s Syndrome occurs in 1 in 1000 births – its likelihood increasing with the age of the mother. People with Down’s Syndrome tend to be shorter than average, they have a distinctive appearance, almost all suffer mental disability with an average IQ of around 50. They are less fertile and have lower life expectancy (although the great successes of 20th century medicine have improved this hugely, from a life expectancy of 12 for a baby born with Down’s syndrome in 1900 to 50 something for one born in the developed world in 2000).

You don’t often see Down’s Syndrome portrayed in film, or rather, you don’t often find films that are about people with Down’s Syndrome, rather than about their relatives and the challenges of caring for someone with Down’s Syndrome: about half of the 25 films on IMDB’s list of films about Down;s Syndrome focus on the experience of non-Down’s Syndrome people. Zac, is, however, the hero of this story – one key distinction, I think, is that it’s not about just a person with Down’s Syndrome it’s about this person, Zac, who catches fish, and has friends, and wants to be a wrestler – whose stage name will be The Peanut Butter Falcon. I was very interested, not just in the plot, but in the way the film was put together – I wonder, for example, if it can possibly be coincidence that Zack Gottsagen’s character is called Zac – and then I was interested in the question of whether someone with Down’s syndrome could play someone without or vice versa.

There are two aspects of these questions that I think bear interrogation. The first is whether someone in the first category is capable of acting someone in the second, which, since acting is by definition pretending to be something you’re not, comes down to the question of whether the audience would be willing to suspend their disbelief whilst watching such a pretence. The second question is whether it’s fair to members of one category to be acted by those from the other – or whether the cross-over adversely affects the roles available to one group of actors, or misleads the audience about one of the groups of people.

You will have noticed that I’ve moved to generalising my analysis, which is because I think we can address the issues in the case of Down’s syndrome fairly quickly. I suspect that Down’s syndrome actors are mostly restricted to Down’s syndrome characters, but not universally – there’s an English actor called Tommy Jessop who has taken on the parts of both Bottom and Hamlet from Shakespeare. I can’t find any examples of non-Down’s syndrome actors playing Down’s syndrome characters. The distinctive appearance and particular difficulties faced by people with Down’s syndrome mean this will always be a fairly clear distinction.

We can ask the same question about other groups, though. What about race? Is it ok to have a white actor playing a black character – as Lawrence Olivier did as Othello in 1965? Is it ok to have a black actor playing a white character – as Papaa Essiedu did as Hamlet in 2016? Is it ok to have a man playing a woman or a woman playing a man – and I mean playing the character as the opposite sex, rather than getting into a pickle over changing the gender of beloved characters as we have with Doctor Who and 007 in recent years.

An interesting case is the 2021 film “Music”, directed by the Australian singer Sia. This is a film about a woman who becomes the guardian of her autistic half-sister. It stars Kate Hudson and Maddie Ziegler and seems quite likely to pass the Bechdel test which is something to be said in its favour before we start on the criticism. The film has attracted criticism because Maddie Ziegler, who plays the half-sister is a non-autistic actress. Sia doesn’t appear to have helped herself in the ensuing discussion, getting involved in a spiky Twitter debate rather than clearly and calmly explaining her position and the events that led to it. One line of argument that she’s used is that she initially casted an autistic actor but they couldn’t make it work and that it was better to make the film imperfectly than not make it at all. Those who disagree with her suspect that her motivations were not to make a film that honestly reflects the experiences of autistic people but to use autism as a vehicle to sell her music. It’s difficult to extract a general principle from the specific incidents – a point that I might have made about Edward Colston if I’d stuck with my original plan: the general principle that mobs shouldn’t be encouraged to rip down public monuments gets lost in the specifics of there being literally a statue of a slave trader on the Queen’s highway.

It’s time to say what I think – and this is the invitation to you to disagree with me – I’m not claiming to have all the answers, just some of the questions. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream the character Bottom, faced with the difficulties of putting on a play with an inadequate set says “Some man or other must present Wall. And let him have some plaster, or some loam, or some roughcast about him to signify wall, or let him hold his fingers thus, and through that cranny shall Pyramus and Thisbe whisper.” If Tom Snout can convince his audience that he is a wall and his fingers a chink through which lovers can whisper then any actor can play any part they like. Spoiler alert – Snout’s attempt to “present wall” is entirely unconvincing and so I think that in an ideal world the question would simply come down to whether an actor can present their part so that the audience are not jolted out of the fantasy. But we don’t live in an ideal world – Olivier’s blackface is shocking not because makeup is being used to improve the ability of the actor to present, but because of the history of the practice, particularly in the 19th century United States, to mock and belittle black slaves. In the UK at the same time, to blacken one’s face was a crime punishable by death – nothing to do with racism, it’s simply that it was used as a disguise by criminals.

I think we should make more films, tell more stories and I think that we’re moving in the right direction as a society. Before 1975, nobody with Down’s Syndrome had appeared on television – in 2019 Zack Gottsagen played the lead in a major movie. This is all within my lifetime – imagine what will happen in yours.