CODA: A First in Many Ways

May 10, 2022

With the war in Ukraine, a lingering pandemic, climate change, poverty, injustice, women’s rights, and rising inflation, there are so many important issues other than the Academy Awards.

My daughters and I were staying in a hotel near Washington D.C. on the night of this year’s Oscars. In the morning, when we came down to the breakfast room, the only thing everybody was talking about was Will Smith slapping Chris Rock.

I was amazed that the movie CODA won the best picture of the year. Written and directed by Sian Heder, the movie was a first in several ways. It was the first time a streaming service company (Apple) went home with an Oscar for best picture. It was the first time a deaf person won the award for best supporting actor (Troy Kotsur, who plays the father in CODA). And it was the first time a movie had drawn such significant attention to the situation of deaf families in a hearing world.

Since I am not always an “early adopter,” I had not seen CODA when it won the Oscar. I must admit I have been skeptical of Academy Award winners ever since the movie La La Land won the Academy Award for 30 seconds only to have it yanked away.

Remember that fiasco back in 2017? La La Land was announced as the winner of best picture. But then it was revealed there was a mistake in the award envelope, and Moonlight was declared the winner.

I then went to see Moonlight and felt cheated for a second time! “How could they have picked Moonlight over La La Land?” I moaned.

But this time, when I went to see the “best movie of the year,” I was positively amazed. CODA more than deserved the award. My advice to you is that if you have a chance to see the film in theaters or stream it on your home screens, do it!

Let me first tell you a bit about the film and why I think it is so important on a cultural level. Then I’d like to explain why I think it is a real turning point that a company like Apple won the “best picture” award. Lastly – and most importantly – I would like to share why this film struck such a spiritual chord with me (and I believe with many others as well).

CODA stands for Children Of Deaf Adults. Ruby (dexterously played by Emilia Jones) is a shy 17-year-old girl who lives in the seaside fishing village of Gloucester, Massachusetts. She is the only one in her family who can hear. She has had to translate the hearing world for her deaf parents (expertly played by Marlee Marlin and Troy Kotsur). With her older brother (who is also deaf and played by Daniel Durant), Ruby tries to keep the family’s fishing boat business afloat.

The hearing world often ridicules her family. It is not an easy situation for Ruby, and she can fall asleep in the middle of class in high school due to exhaustion. But Ruby loves music and has natural talent as a singer. Her colorful music teacher (played gracefully by Eugenio Derbez) spots Ruby‘s talent and tries to nurture it. He thinks Ruby could win a scholarship to one of the most prestigious music schools in the country.

But here is the conflict and critical decision. The music school is located in Boston. Attending college means that Ruby would leave her family alone at a critical time. Who would be there to interpret for them? Who would be there to help them function in a hearing world?

Ruby‘s family is starting a wholesale fishing cooperative to fight back against some of the sleazy practices in the fishing industry. It couldn’t be a worse time for Ruby to go away to college in Boston. And yet, Ruby will pay a high price if she does not follow her passion for music and sacrifices herself for the family business.

On top of this, Ruby is falling into her first love affair with a fellow music student (played charmingly by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). My college roommate grew up in a town just north of Gloucester. I remember the “lakes” in the old rock quarries up there. The water was freezing! I hope that Emilia and Ferdia did not have to do 33 takes of their love scenes swimming in the bone-chilling rock quarry water!

The family, of course, does not understand Ruby’s passion for music. At first, Ruby walks away from even trying out at the prestigious music school. But then her family members, starting with her father and brother, get it! When she finally auditions for college, Ruby incorporates sign language into her music.

There are so many scenes that touch one to the core. Ruby and her mom, for example, are sitting on the bed. She courageously asks her mom, “Were you disappointed when you learned that I was not deaf?” Ruby’s mom admits that she did feel disappointed. Ruby asks her why and her mom signs back, “I was afraid that as a deaf person, I would fail you as a mother.” It takes a lot of courage to ask a question like that, and it also takes a lot of courage to give such a heartfelt response.

Throughout the film, there is humor and gaiety as well as tears. Yes, this is a movie about a deaf family. However, I believe many families could relate to Ruby’s clan.

So what is so important about CODA on a cultural level? First, in many places, the movie uses subtitles. You will need them if you don’t know how to read American Sign Language. Also, in several key places and scenes, there is no sound. You start to view the world from the point of view of a deaf person. The level of empathy generated in CODA is extraordinary. There are so many things we hearing people just take for granted.

So what is so important about CODA in terms of Apple winning the best picture award? It is a clear indication of the growing dominance of Big Tech in the entertainment industry. Should we care about this? Back in the days of Clark Gable and the Hollywood studio system, we were concerned that the movie industry was a very tight oligopoly with only a few large corporations. Our political system responded by placing limitations on how much of the film distribution system could be owned by the large movie studios. Later we also created constraints on how many local TV and radio stations the big networks could own.

Are we now comfortable with a few Big Tech firms controlling our entertainment and news industries? I can watch CODA on an iPhone. Guess which brand of smartphones Ruby’s family uses in the movie? Let me place all my cards face up: my computer is a MacBook Air, and the cell phones in our house are Apple. I am also a subscriber to Apple’s music streaming service. Apple does many things very well. But we say we believe in checks and balances. The British philosopher Lord Acton said: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.“ CODA indicates that these issues are not going away anytime soon.

What about CODA and spirituality? The movie does an excellent job of portraying real-life situations and challenges. There is often not a clear “good guy” on one side and “bad guy” on the other when applying spiritual values. At the age of 17, Ruby faces a complicated dilemma. Should she stand by her family in a crucial moment, or should she fulfill her need to achieve, what psychologist Abraham Maslow would call, self-actualization?

Dr. Maslow saw something even more profound than self-actualization in the last years of his life. He called it transcendence. We might call it spiritual enlightenment or being one with the One.

For Ruby, the road to self-actualization and transcendence is not an easy or straight path. I believe that is the case for many of us in real life – unlike so often in the movies. However, I hope you make a straight line to see CODA – if you have not already seen it.

Many blessings,

Rev. Rick

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