How to Solve the Flashback Problem in Movies
When a director is asked why they chose to cast an able‐bodied actor in their movie about a character in a wheelchair, they often talk about how several scenes in their movie occur before The Accident so they needed to cast someone who could play both an able‐bodied and disabled role. I like to call this The Flashback Problem™ and I think I’ve come up with a couple of tips for helping directors avoid it when making a movie about a disabled character.
Table the Discussion
Need to show that classic “look at how in love we were before my ability to love shattered along with my 3rd vertebra“ scene? Have the disabled main character (DMC) sit at a coffee table across from their love interest. Cafe tables have a deep, rich history of concealment in cinema; from guns and engagement rings to awkward boners. A table is the perfect thing to hide your disabled actor’s dead, noodle legs. Hell, the only thing it can’t hide is your inability to write a compelling story.
Need to show a little tension? Try the classic angry dinner. Your MDC can awkwardly poke at his soon‐to‐be‐ex wive’s terrible roast. Your audience will be so focused on the stilted dialogue about how things haven’t been the same since The Accident that they won’t even notice your disabled actor’s lifeless meat sticks.
Head to Bed
As versatile as a table is, it’s hardly intimate. Maybe your movie calls for some deep (implied) post-coital conversation. Use a bedsheet! To use a bedsheet in a flashback scene, simply shoot your disabled actor from the waist up. As long as you avoid the classic catapult nightmare, no one will catch your character’s complete lack of core strength or meaningful story arc!
Actually Make Your Characters Interesting
The easiest way to solve the The Flashback Problem™ in your movie is to not not have flashbacks. Don’t center your movie around what made the MDC into the MDC. Realize that disabled characters (and by extension, disabled people) are complex and multidimensional with strengths and flaws that have absolutely nothing to do with their disability. Don’t write disabled characters and try to make them compelling. Write compelling characters that happen to be disabled.
Having pre‐The Accident scenes in your movie makes the disability the true main character of the film. It would be like writing an entire story about the gun and the bullet instead of the person who got shot. It frames your character as being controlled or driven by their condition and ultimately takes away their agency.
Most importantly, these kinds of portrayals of disability in film ultimately go on to harm real, actual disabled people. It either makes their lives look hopeless and without joy or elevates them to some kind of pitied saint, constantly “overcoming” and incapable of doing wrong.
Do better. Hire disabled actors. Elevate disabled writers. Don't be a hack.