From the first shifted gear of Edgar Wright’s stunning Baby Driver (Seriously. What else can we say? Go see it!), everyone wants to know what Baby’s deal is. They’re still waiting on his first words, as Buddy (Jon Hamm) says. He seems to be completely tuned out, and yet he always knows exactly the plan. His appearance - Ray-Ban sunglasses and two firmly entrenched iPod earbuds - may be a facade, but it’s also an attempt to fit into a world more alien to him than he’s comfortable with.
Every kid wants to fit in. Try to find a middle school student determined to stand out alone. Comfort comes in numbers, in invisibility. It comes in knowing you can enjoy something without having to explain why. That you can be who you are without having to answer too many questions.
I grew up in the mid-sized (but all-lovable) city of Spokane, WA, going from preschool to my Bachelor’s Degree at Gonzaga University as often the only deaf student wherever I went. I had no models to follow. I had so few deaf friends. As a result, I found it somehow my mission to fit in. I had to become more hearing. I became embarrassed when my mother – only trying to help me more clearly understand - used sign language with me in the middle of a mall because it broke the illusion.
I also watched movies voraciously because they helped me understand the world around me. Speech is so much easier to understand when it’s captioned and subtitled. You don’t miss anything. You don’t have to ask someone to repeat something. And you can witness conversations that you’d never imagine otherwise, not having to worry about the background noise or the lack of good light for proper lip-reading.
I thoroughly enjoyed Four Weddings and Funeral as a kid for the hilarious, heartfelt story and Hugh Grant charisma, but I also enjoyed it for one key reason: my first exposure to a Deaf actor on screen. It didn’t matter that he used BSL (British Sign Language). I just loved how, as someone walking around in the most painful adolescent years of his life with one hearing aid, I could see someone wearing two hearing aids and who, above all, was clearly loved and respected by his brother. Hugh Grant’s character not only pays attention to his brother, but wants to know what he has to say. He leans to him for advice.
Until that moment, representation in film never occurred to me. I watched these hearing characters because that’s how Hollywood made them. That’s how they cast them. I never thought about them looking, sounding, or being anything like me.
When I saw 2005’s The Family Stone, I cringed at not only the idea of a deaf character, but a gay, deaf character with a black hearing boyfriend. I saw more buzzwords in their description than actual character. But as I watched, all my tenseness faded. I saw a family that never once looked at their brother as other, but as seamless an addition as anyone else. They each had their own way of communicating with him, and they made it count.
Watching this incredibly uncomfortable dinner scene shook me for minutes after. What was important to me is not that he’s at the table (of course he is), but that he has a mother who understands how to talk to him (they need to make eye contact first), who understands her son better than anyone and will not let anything - be it a thrown fork or dim light settings - get in the way of letting him know that he’s as normal as any other asshole at the table.
Baby Driver brings in a new wrinkle to the deaf-hearing relationships we see on film. We know that Baby has tinnitus and is adopted by Joseph (CJ Jones), an older deaf black man who rarely leaves the apartment. They share an easy rapport, and if you ever hear anyone say “How can you tell the difference if the hearing actor learns sign?” show them any conversation Baby and Joseph have, over and over and over again. As someone who uses sign for work and conversation, I can absolutely tell that Baby has learned it and Joseph knows it. The difference is unmistakable, and yet never threatens to unravel or burden the conversation. If anything, it frees it. It gives it meaning. Baby is just as musical in his conversation with Joseph as he is dancing around the apartment to “Deborah”.
When Baby Driver first premiered at SXSW 2017 and I heard about CJ Jones’ role in the film, my ears (well, the one that sorta works with a hearing aid) perked up. Only a few weeks before, I had covered Black History Month and included Jones himself. I showed my students - who are not only Deaf but with additional special needs - the following clip. Not only did my students understand what he was saying, but they got the nuance in his facial expressions. They saw something they could connect with. They were not alone.
CJ Jones is a new face to most of us, but he’s been around for over 35 years, preforming all over the world, for deaf and hearing audiences alike. In fact, he even did a rap song on A Different World.
In this clip, Dwayne Wayne asks him how he lives without music, and Jones’ reaction is incredulous. What you mean? He’s a deaf rapper! And in conjunction with his hearing friend, he raps a song called “Deaf by Tempation”, a positively rousing ditty that’s at turns autobiographical and a fun guide to interacting as a Deaf with the hearing world (“Lesson number three: learn how to listen. If you read their lips, they’ll be thinking about kissing!”) It’s a near seamless blend of two different worlds that not only never detracts but only reinvigorates the other.
There are many, many YouTube clips of his work to be found, but the two above are the most impactful to me because they do something that we could all use more of: show how the hearing and deaf worlds can merge in ways that are as illuminating as they are fun and progressive. Go to Jones’ website and you can see how many worlds he combines in the way he describes himself and what he does: “Entertainer, MC, storyteller, mime, ASL signer, song-signing, dance, rap, African drum slit, cajon drum, percussion, basketball, writer, director, producer, motivational speaker, artist-in-residence and Deaf/ASL culture consultation.”
In many ways, I get who Baby is. I didn’t lose my hearing until I was 4 from spinal meningitis, which gave me just enough time to develop a love for music that has continued my whole life. I played trumpet (not very well) for five years, jazz guitar for an ill-advised year, and sing all manner of songs when I’m alone or in a car (as we all do). Jones himself is one of seven hearing children born to deaf parents, and didn’t lose his hearing until the age of seven due to the same spinal meningitis. Clearly he is proven to be as musical as any hearing person you can find. Baby Driver is an intensely musical film - packed wall the wall with tunes of all sorts and varieties - and yet Joseph not only doesn’t feel out of place, but he feels like he truly belongs. He finds his own way to enjoy the musicality of Baby’s life.
He’s got quite the body of work that can be overwhelming to sort through. The point is: he’s been playing this game longer than many of us. And it’s gratifying to see him get a stage to perform upon in a studio film populated with hearing actors and crew.
Every year the conversation is rehashed again (as it should be) when an able-bodied actor is cast in place of someone with a disability. In an interview with D.PAN TV, Edgar Wright himself admitted that he had no idea the severity of the practice until casting for Joseph. And when he met CJ, after seeing his work? The case was closed. Wright could not imagine casting an actor playing deaf. The difference, as he discovered, is unmistakable.
Lest anyone think the fit may have been awkward, the same interview shows Jones and Wright positively chummy with each other. Wright learned how to better direct Deaf actors - how to not be so unnecessarily verbose, and to keep his direction simple and direct - and Jones learned how to not only collaborate with a major director on a major film set, but to accept the feedback from Wright so that his performance could be more carefully modulated for the big screen. In fact, a key reminder Wright would give Jones is that the screen is very, very big; there would be no need to play facial expressions as big as Jones is accustomed to in his performances. They watched out for each other; Wright protecting his actor in his first major studio role, and Jones’ protecting his director from making decisions he had no idea could be problematic.
The mutual respect between Wright and Jones is no more prominent to me then in the interactions between Baby and Joseph. All of their conversations are subtitled, but it’s clear that Wright allowed Jones to do an ASL interpretation of his own dialogue. For a writer/director who is known for being as meticulous as Wright, this requires a lot of trust. Whatever he has written will be broken down into its key spatial concepts, and Jones will get to the essence of the statement that may look spare to a non-signer but is a 100 times more accurate and meaningful to someone like me.
(Side note: as much as I adore John Wick 2, the universal sign language – it’s not clear which dialect, if any, is used – with the subtitles is kind of a hot mess. It looks cool to general audiences, but it worked as a bad, confusing misfire to me. Baby Driver shows them how you do it the right way.)
Both Wright and Jones are hopeful that having the first deaf black actor in a studio film will open up opportunities for others in the future. We know these roles have to be written first. There have to be teams led by people who are open to the possibility. It won’t be easy. But in a world that embraces shows like Atlanta, movies like Black Panther, a TV show like ABC’s Speechless, and can have a Dancing with the Stars contestant in Nyle DiMarco - anything is possible.
In being in tune with Baby Driver, I would posit that these moments of true representation are like that perfect pop song Wright so clearly adores. Having an actor of color or disability simply show up is often seen as one-note. They’re barely there. They don’t get much to say. But when they’re given an actual role, with actual lines, with an actual character they can play and a performance they can modulate? It’s like that perfect pop song. It squirms into the fabric of the story, just like an earworm, and leaves you feeling changed. We get brief glimpses of Joseph and Baby’s relationship throughout the movie, through the dialogue and their interactions, but it all amounts in the end, in their final encounter, to that perfect pop song coasting towards the finish, riding the wave of emotions it subtly pricked in us.
I left Baby Driver completely jazzed. Not just because it’s a great movie made by a great artist absolutely firing on all cylinders - but because I got to see CJ Jones in a major studio film, and given the respect and attention to his character that I could only dream of. It left me just as buzzed as any of the perfect pop songs Wright put into his film.
It reminded me that I’m not alone.