CODA’s dominance during the awards season culminated in three wins out of three at the Academy Awards. The tearjerker follows Ruby Rossi, a CODA (child of deaf adults) who’s the only hearing person in her family. She enjoys her role as interpreter of the family but soon arrives at a crossroads: leave to grow her singing career or stay to support her fishing family. 

CODA’s biggest triumph lies in its representation of the deaf community. The film incorporated ASL into 40% of the script, used a cast with hearing disabilities, and accurately brought out the struggles experienced by deaf people. 

CODA is not based on real life but tries hard to mimic real situations

CODA’s writer, Sian Heder, spent many summers in Gloucester. She based the film there and wanted the struggles of its fishing community brought out.

Like the Gloucester community, the Rossi family struggles to remain afloat under the weight of discriminative fishing regulations. Fishing legislation has made fishing more expensive, threatening to wipe out most of the fishermen in Gloucester.

To better understand the fishing experience, the cast spent time on a trawler named Angela & Rose. CODA’s director also contacted fishermen’s associations as part of her research. Consequently, the cast became proficient in the ways of local fishing, creating more authentic scenes onscreen. 

Heder wanted the experiences of a deaf family living with a CODA to be as accurate as possible. Therefore, she learned ASL quickly to better communicate with her deaf actors. 

Casting deaf actors made her work easier as they could incorporate their experiences into the film. Troy Kotsur (Frank Rossi) gently held his daughter’s throat when she was in kindergarten so he could feel her singing.

In CODA, Frank gently feels Ruby’s neck so he can experience her singing. Troy uttered the word ‘Go’ in the film, resulting from intense practice and trust of instinct. 

The community in Gloucester makes little effort to communicate with the Rossi family, forcing Ruby to become an interpreter. Research suggests that non-deaf CODAs often assume the role of interpreters in their families. 

The Rossi family in the film looked and spoke like a proper Massachusetts family. In search of authenticity, Sian incorporated the local dialect, including crude phrases, into the film’s ASL. 

Sian ended up with a film with no real-life basis but one that mimics reality almost to a tee. 

The filmmakers tried hard to find deaf actors to fill deaf roles

CODA star Marlee Matlin almost left the film after hearing that her onscreen husband would be a hearing actor. “I said, ‘Thank you, but I’m out,’” Matlin told The Hollywood Reporter. “I truly felt like I would rather see the movie not get made than to see the movie get made with hearing actors,” the film’s director concurred. 

Frank (Troy Kotsur) and Jackie (Marlee Matlin) | Courtesy of Apple TV

In the end, the deaf members of the Rossi family were portrayed by deaf actors: Oscar-winner Troy Kotsur as Frank, Ruby’s dad; Oscar-winner Matlin as Jackie, Ruby’s mom; newcomer Daniel Durant as Ruby’s brother Leo. 

“We have a very long history in movies where characters that are deaf happen to be victims and to be pitied and need help,” Kotsur told NPR. “They can be successful. They can work in whatever field. They just happen to be deaf.”

Frank told The Associated Press that the film allows hearing people to understand the lives of deaf people. “It’s a good experience for the audience to come into deaf culture and get an inside view of what it looks like,” he said. 

Matlin has long fought for deaf inclusion in Hollywood and feels like this film represents a victory for deaf actors. “To have a hearing actor put on a deaf character as if it was a costume. I think we’ve moved beyond that point now,” she said. 

Marlee is a veteran actor, but she says she never felt more liberated while filming than on the set of CODA. It shows the extraordinary lengths the filmmakers went through to incorporate the deaf community. She told The Daily News:

“I could really spread my wings. There were no barriers. There were no communication conflicts. There was nothing of that sort. Everyone was in this game together. We knew what we wanted to make, which was a great film. We wanted to portray the authenticity of Deaf people. We wanted to be honest, tell a good story.”

The original French film was criticized for casting hearing actors

CODA is an adaptation of the French dramedy, The Belier Family. It centers on a teenage CODA who’s the only hearing girl in her family. She discovers a gift in singing but struggles to leave her family’s farm. The film received harsh reviews, mainly because it cast hearing actors to play deaf roles. 

CODA’s insistence on bringing out the authentic deaf experience gave the story global attention. Howard Rosenblum told Daily News that CODA is the first film since Children of a Lesser God to ‘put the lives of deaf people on the large screen in a meaningful way.’ 

He pointed out that previous films with deaf roles had failed to portray the lives of deaf families accurately. “‘CODA’ brought out the unique experiences of Deaf families that have hearing children, and shared this common story with the American public for the first time,” he said. 

When Howard spoke to Daily News, Troy Kotsur hadn’t won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Rosenblum described him as a ‘phenomenal actor’ who played his role to perfection. 

“It is important to note that while the character is Deaf, Troy as an actor went beyond just being a Deaf person and showed the incredible range of emotions befitting such a role,” Howard said. It’s perhaps fitting that Troy became the second deaf actor to win an Academy Award. 

In conclusion, Howard said that he hoped filmmakers used COTA as a guide in portraying deaf people and their experiences. He said:

“We hope that this film will lead to more movies and shows about Deaf people, and include them in the writing, direction and production of those stories. For the stories to be truly authentic, Deaf people need to be involved in all aspects from beginning to end.”

Also Read: The ending and meaning of CODA, explained