This year marks the 20th anniversary of the film I Am Sam, a drama for which Sean Penn garnered tons of support that also led to him being nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Sam, a father with an intellectual disability. I Am Sam is held in high regard, but director and writer Jessie Nelson recently told The Hollywood Reporter, “I wouldn’t make that movie today without a lead being from the community.” The world has changed drastically in the last 20 years, and the inclusion of representation for underrepresented communities matters more than ever — that is what Nelson means when she says she would need a lead from the community.
The fact that Jessie Nelson would want someone else other than Sean Penn has nothing to do with Penn’s acting ability, but representing the community in the right light matters to the director and the rest of the world. The political landscape has changed so much and those who have been overlooked in the past are not to be looked over any longer. Nelson commented on what the studio had told her 20 years ago. According to her, “At that time, they would not allow me to hire a real disabled actor to play the role. They were afraid to put a budget of that size on the shoulders of an actor from that community.”
Jessie Nelson had apparently not wanted Sean Penn at all. However, with how studios work and the uncertainly of projects, they had apparently been afraid to cast someone from the disabled community in the titular role. Nelson had fought for the main role to be someone of the disabled community but was at odds with the studio in that regard. Only a big-name actor was to be attached to the role. She fought hard to even get members of the disabled community cast as Sam’s friends. Even though she had lost the war, she won that particular battle. Things might have gone differently if the movie were made today.
Nelson called Sean Penn’s performance, “undeniably beautiful”, and was more than happy with the results of how the film came out, but working with a disabled lead mattered more to her. This is certainly true for the simple fact that actors have been receiving awards for their portrayal of characters with mental health issues or disabilities. Like Joaquin Phoenix winning Best Actor for Joker, where he played a man that suffered from deep mental health issues.
Inclusion matters a great deal. Through it, we are able to garner more understanding and empathy for people different from us. Underrepresented communities are a part of what makes the world what it is. Sean Penn is an outstanding actor that clearly got the praise he deserved for his role as Sam, but it would be interesting to see how the film would have been received if someone from the disabled community was actually able to represent themselves in a big-time Hollywood role.