A new Hollywood film depicting a romance between a quadriplegic and his caretaker that ends in the man choosing suicide over life in a wheelchair is being denounced by the disabled community.
Two dozen activists with disabilities and their supporters protested outside a South Philadelphia movie theater Monday against the film "Me Before You," calling it "poisonous" and saying it could encourage suicide among people with disabilities.
“As of Saturday, June 4, I have lived with a spinal cord injury for 15 years,” said activist German Parodi, 32, who uses a wheelchair and became disabled after he was shot in the throat during a carjacking. “There’s no reason for us to kill ourselves.”
“Me Before You" (caution: spoilers ahead) tells the story of a six-month romance between a man (Sam Claflin) who has recently become quadriplegic and his caretaker (Emilia Clarke). The film ends with the disabled man choosing to kill himself rather than live in a wheelchair.
The activists in Philly sang and chanted for more than an hour outside the UA Riverview 17, one of two theaters in the city that is showing the film. They were affiliated with Not Dead Yet, a disability rights group that is organizing protests nationwide and protested the film’s red-carpet premiere in Hollywood.
For those participating in the protest, the story of the film is a painful parallel to their own experiences.
“I’ve struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts,” said Anomie Fatale, 28, a musician and performer who became disabled at 20 due to Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. “Putting that out there in the mainstream is dangerous. … It could kill someone.”
Fatale said she has quadriparesis, severe muscle weakness affecting all four limbs.
“You are suggesting, romanticizing, glorifying, encouraging suicide. That is a thing I can’t be okay with,” Fatale said. “I’m worried about young, impressionable teenagers. I want to put the right message out there.”
Director Thea Sharrock recently defended the film against the criticisms of ableism, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “I didn’t quite anticipate this” and that the criticisms arose from “a fundamental misunderstanding of what the message is.”
“It’s a fictional story about how important the right to choose is. The message of the film is to live boldly, push yourself, don’t settle,” Sharrock said.
“It’s b------t. She’s going after disabled people,” said Nancy Salandra, an organizer with Philly ADAPT. “Hollywood is decades behind the times with disability rights. 'Million Dollar Baby,' same thing,”
Activists said the film barely portrays any characters who disagree with the protagonist’s decision to end his life in Switzerland at Dignitas, a real assisted suicide organization.
“There is product placement for an assisted suicide organization in this film,” said Clark Matthews, 34, a filmmaker who uses a wheelchair. “Can you name the last romantic film with a disabled protagonist? The first one in decades, and of course he kills himself.”
There is also no depiction in the film of the community of people with disabilities, which activists credited with helping them live their own lives.
“In the past five years, I started meeting other people with disabilities. I stopped feeling ashamed. These people made me feel like I’m not a burden,” said Liam Dougherty, 26, who uses a wheelchair due to Friedreich's ataxia, a progressive neural disorder.
“It’s a road I could have gone down,” Dougherty said of the story depicted in the film. “I’m so glad I have a supportive organization that made me realize I shouldn’t have gone down that path.”