Marvel’s Inhumans is in full gear for a September release, and it’s already raising some questions — mainly, trying to figure out what the hell is going on with Medusa’s hair. But a recent comment about how Black Bolt will communicate on the show has got me thinking.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, actor Anson Mount, who’s playing Black Bolt on the series, revealed that his character would be using sign language to communicate since his powers come from his voice and he mostly stays silent. However, he added that it wouldn’t be American Sign Language (ASL) giving the reason that since the guy’s an alien, he wouldn’t know it.
“I actually have to do more preparation when it comes to scenes in which I sign, and I can’t use American Sign Language,” Mount said. “Because he’s not from Earth, he wouldn’t know American Sign Language, so I’m making my own sign system.”
Now, in the context of the comic book, that’s entirely true. I’m not going to argue that. The Inhumans wouldn’t know our versions of sign language because they’re superhumans who live on the moon (although the show is being filmed in Hawaii, and Black Bolt mostly communicates telepathically anyway). But honestly, this is one of those situations where I’m going to throw my hands up in the air and say, “OK… and?”
Audiences are pretty good at suspending their disbelief when it comes to the use of language on television shows. In many works, audiences across the galaxy speak the same language of whatever country it’s being presented in — with many American shows, it’s English. This is often thanks to a universal translator — though they never explain why their mouth movements match the words they’re speaking (again, suspension of disbelief). Then, when you add invented languages for scifi and fantasy, they’re either carefully crafted by professionals, like Dothraki or Klingon, or the writers simply make up a few words and phrases to keep the story moving.
There isn’t a lot of representation for people who are deaf or hard of hearing in modern television. In fact, only a few shows nowadays regularly feature characters who are hard of hearing, like Switched at Birth. And with scifi and fantasy, it’s even worse. The Magicians has had a repeat cameo from Marlee Matlin, an Oscar-winning deaf actor, but other than that, characters who communicate in that language are hard to come by.
I’m not saying Black Bolt needs to use full-on American Sign Language — in fact, some sign language speakers I talked to on Twitter about this said they’d rather he didn’t. Instead, they suggested he work with sign language speakers to create a form of communication based on ASL. It would use enough of the original language so people who are deaf and hard of hearing would understand it, therefore making sure it’s not complete gibberish, but it’d still have a few variances to make it unique to his character and the series. That’s sort of like what Dawn of the Planet of the Apes did, where actors worked with a translator to help merge ASL with how apes naturally communicate through their bodies.
It seems like a missed opportunity to simply have the actor make something up by himself, instead of working with the deaf community to create something unique that celebrates comic book fans who speak in sign language. It could still serve the series, but give it something extra for fans who aren’t often represented on camera. Black Bolt isn’t deaf, but using real sign language would be an interesting way to engage viewers who are.