Right Footed is an 81 minute documentary about Jessica Cox, a motivational speaker and disability rights activist that was born without arms. The film also documents her ability as an expert martial artist, her journey to become the first armless airplane pilot, her activism work in other countries (including lobbying Congress to pass an international disability rights act), and also her marriage and mentorship to young women with the same disability. The film has won numerous awards (which can be found on the website).
Right Footed was directed by Nick Spark, an Emmy Award winning filmmaker (for The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club) and USC School of Cinematic Arts graduate. Through the the International Documentary Association (IDA)–a 501(c)3 in Los Angeles–Right Footed was made on a non-profit basis and was partially crowdfunded on two occasions (at least $23,177 came from one Indiegogo campaign and $37,763 from another campaign).
The film follows two years of her life, starting with a montage of childhood photos, and begins “present day” (2013) with Jessica’s wedding. The film follows Jessica to Ethiopia where she speaks to disabled children, the Philippines where she supports disability rights, Capitol Hill where she lobbies Congress, and all of the challenges of living without in a world that was designed for people with.
Jessica (and Nick Spark) attended the screening and appeared before (Nick) and after (Jessica) the film, taking questions from the moderator and audience. The intent of the film was to spread awareness (about the Guinness World Record-holding motivational speaker as well as finding mentors for disability) and raise support for the CRPD, a disability rights act treaty that is still open for review by the U.S. Senate.
Right Footed is a documentary, so genre, technological advancements, other films of the decade and genre, actors, character breakdown, and archetypes aren’t necessarily pertinent or applicable. However, it was quite evident that the audience, characters, and filmmakers made up a distinct demographic. The audience was made up of people who (superficially) seemed to identify as Asian, Asian-American, or White. With more research, the production team, director, producer, and other staff seemed to fall into those same groups as well. The New Parkway (where we saw the film on the closing night of the CAAM Film Festival), is situated in the Northgate Waverly neighborhood of Oakland, encircled by Uptown and Lakeside to the South, Oak Center and McClymonds to the West, Hoover Foster and Pill Hill to the North, and Oakland Ave-Harrison Street, Adams Point, and Lake Merritt to the East. These communities that surround Lake Merritt tend to be wealthier and whiter, and don’t reflect the demographics of Oakland. The New Parkway is just off San Pablo and is surrounded by a tiny strip of trendy, hipster restaurants (see Mua Oakland), a few local galleries, and several blocks of rundown car dealerships and businesses with barred doors and windows. Generally, gentrification has clearly split the city into affluent communities and underserved ones, but in this neighborhood, it’s a little more subtle. It combines the aesthetics of rundown-just-so, artsily-exposed-brick-on-glass-on-steel and industrial architecture, with actually rundown, brick-by-necessity, auto-industry-fueled components. The mix is dizzying, but when you look closer, it’s easy to see which buildings have been renovated and carefully composed to fit in with the rest of the scenery.
Another fun fact, while we were waiting in the rush line for Painted Nails, the film we were initially intending to watch (a documentary about the nail industry), we crossed a picket line: the New Parkway isn’t unionized. (And everyone else in the rush line seemed to be White.) The Parkway, although art has typically created cultural community, has just served to highlight the divides in the Oakland community. It draws the wealthy (statistically) white residents from the more affluent communities (statistically), who spend their money in the trendy shops that have appeared through the process of gentrification (statistically) and the economy of trendy hipster stores benefits while the local stores supported by the traditionally POC (statistically) lose more of the money that has circulated out of reach. This is particularly interesting because of the mission of the CAAM Fest, to popularize and include films that center on or are made by Asian Americans. Despite that, Asians have been the only minority group to surpass the median earning value of Whites in the U.S. It struck me as interesting that this film was screening in the Bay Area, where gentrification has become increasingly more noticeable. So the white filmmakers (for the CAAM Fest films, if the filmmakers were not Asian or Asian America, they were White–almost without exception) were capitalizing on the stories and struggles of Asian Americans in an area and country where they were profiting the most. It always makes me uncomfortable to see majority groups profiting off minority groups, but in this case, it just makes me uncomfortable that the two highest earning groups are profiting in an area where they they don’t represent the general demographics. That is to say, white Oakland has benefitted from an Asian film festival which has promoted the gentrification of the already-gentrified Lake Merritt-general area, while the groups that make up the majority of the population in Oakland are left out of the cultural and economic growth (according to a recent census, more than half of the people in Oakland identified as Black or Latino). Meanwhile, the gentrification has forced minority groups to leave Oakland (a 25% drop in Black families), despite the fact that the city’s culture is credited to its Black residents.
Despite the fact that the film was intended to equal the field in terms of ability, it seems that the racial aspect wasn’t as big of a component (in this theater anyway). Although Cox is a woman of color herself, she doesn’t appear to mention it at all–a huge departure from most of this decade’s documentaries. To put it simply, while she shattered many clichés and typecasts about persons with disabilities, her identity as a woman of color remained untouched. Filmmakers (consciously or not) seemed to have subscribed to the culture of intersectionality and race. In last year’s documentary about the feminist movement (She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry), the topic of race was addressed, not just as a result of the movement, but as a problem that was never considered during the time period. The documentary pointed out that white feminism was leading the movement, without making space for the women of color who felt that they deserved equality–for women, and for people of color as well. This aside though, the foray into ability and disability, and attempt to educate a lay-audience was enjoyable and moving. The documentary was a well-crafted glimpse into the life of an ambitious and determined woman, and while it was lacking in cinematography, the care put into the film was clear through the patience and time commitment that were put into this film.
1: The first storyboard is of the title sequence. The main character (named Jessica Cox) is featured in the left third of the screen, while the title takes up the right two thirds of the screen. Jessica is doing her make-up with her right food, giving meaning to the title and giving the audience context for the plot of the film. My mom and I had actually walked into the film without any prior knowledge of what it was about, and despite the producer and screenwriter appearing for a pre-show interview, the title still hadn’t clicked, so this scene was essential in my understanding of the film.
I chose this scene because of the rule of thirds. It doesn’t quite make sense to have Jessica on just one third, but because of the typography and shot type, this presentation seems to be the most natural. In the initial spot, Jessica is sitting in the back of a car on one side, and the title appears over the empty spot next to her, creating a nice visual effect. The stark typography also keeps the frame minimal, so that the focus is equally on the title as well as Jessica ( who has already been in frame for several seconds).
2: This scene is about twenty minutes in. Before the show, the producer, main cameraman/cinematographer/etc., came out and answered some questions about the film and talked about the process (it took about 3 years to make) and about meeting Jessica and documenting her life. From the Q+A, it seemed like the wedding was the focal point of the wedding, and in the movie, it represents the point where the documentary actually begins. Patrick (the husband) appears regularly throughout the movie, and so the introduction is really very necessary. It also opens the next arc of the film, which deals with finding love and the self-esteem issues that young girls with disabilities have. In this particular scene, Patrick is positioned on the right third of the screen with his name on the lower right of the screen.
I chose this scene because of the shot type. It’s very similar to the title sequence and the favored shot type for new character appearances in the documentary. Patrick appears on the right third in this scene while Jessica appears on the left third in the title sequence, giving the effect of continuity to the viewer. The typography is also very minimal so the focus is mostly on Patrick.
3. In this scene, Patrick and Jessica are walking in front of the Capitol Building (home to the U.S. Congress). Jessica has just come from lobbying Congresswo/men to support the CRPD (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities), an international disability rights act that’s based on the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).
I chose this scene because of the camera angle. It’s shot from below so that Jessica and Patrick appear taller and larger in proportion to Capitol Hill, while including the entirety of the building in the shot.
4: This was one of the last scenes in the movie. It starts with Jessica accompanying Patrick on the piano with her toes with a voiceover about how she’s looking forward to breaking more boundaries and doing more outreach work. The scene then cuts to her skydiving (and then the credits).
I chose this scene because of sound/continuity. There are three things going on simultaneously (a voiceover/skydiving/piano scene with the sound) and yet the continuity isn’t interrupted. It’s a particularly nice ending sequence, as she does one rather mundane task and one daring one (and yet the mundane task would seem to require arms/hands while the daring one doesn’t) while the music (“Ave Maria”) accompanies the uplifting tone of the narration.
Written Response Part 1:
I loved the message of Right Footed a lot, I even cried a few times during the film. Although the cinematic techniques were lacking, the story more than made up for it. Because Right Footed was a documentary, and it had to be filmed without planning out each shot, the focus was more on the story than the cinematography. The first few minutes of the film were created with old video clips and photos, so the quality of the film was designed to highlight the clips rather than contribute to the artistic effect. The second part of the movie was shot mostly on the go, without lights or sets or professional gear (other than the camera), and was very true to typical documentary standards. Despite that, there was one scene that was absolutely stunning: the wedding. Jessica Cox’s wedding was a major turning point for the film and marked the point where the film transitioned from the past to present. Jessica had invited three of her mentees (that were also born without arms) to her wedding to show them that their disability didn’t detract from their ability to find true love and get married. None of the wedding was staged and so the conversations between the girls were realistic and brief, but it had a certain light whimsicality that was stunningly beautiful and emotionally crushing. Most of the audience was teary throughout the entire scene. The most touching part though, was during the throwing of the bouquet. Jessica feeds her new husband some cake with her feet and then goes to throw the bouquet. A couple girls scuffle for it, and then one of the mentees (who was doubtful about being able to find love before meeting Jessica and attending the wedding) rises above the crowd clutching the bouquet between her neck and shoulder.
Written Response Part 2:
Pick one scene and analyze it through the lens of class: The film was really aimed at ability awareness and disability rights, so other core identifiers like race/class/socioeconomic class were really glossed over. Like the fact that Jessica grew up in an upper-middle class home wasn’t addressed at all, despite the fact that her class was what enabled her to have the kind of lifestyle where she could learn how to fly an airplane, drive a car, and travel to speak to disabled children. There are many disabled children who grow up without the opportunity to wear prosthetics, or have caretakers, or mentors. Jessica had all of the above and that was something that wasn’t mentioned at all in the film. There’s one particular arc in the film that’s about Jessica learning to fly and there’s one scene where she flies solo for the first time. She originally had been commuting to another state to take flying lessons, but after finding an air coupe that didn’t require the use of feet pedals, she was able to commute to a field much closer to home. The privilege of having dispensable funds to spend on something like flying lessons is completely ignored (an extremely significant part of the experience considering that she received a Guinness World Record for it).
Pick another scene or the same scene and analyze it through the lens of representations of ethnicity and race: The question of race is always interesting in an international context. Jessica travels to Ethiopia and the Philippines where she seems to float through poverty and crisis-stricken neighborhoods and situations without coming up against any racial barriers. The same happens in the U.S.-based portions of the film. Despite the fact that Jessica interacts with exclusively White Americans, the topic of race isn’t broached at all. The focus stays firmly on ability. So while Jessica is a disabled woman of color, the only barriers she comes up against seem to be related to disability, though that’s not necessarily realistic. To be a disabled woman of color is to be on the bottom of the social hierarchy. Women of color (specifically Black and Latina women) are the lowest earners (though interestingly, demographically speaking, White and Asian families earn more than Black and Hispanic families–although I’m not sure about the reference frame of Hispanic for this particular article because the earnings for Spanish families are generally much higher than those of families from South and Central America–regardless of their race) and face lower hiring rates. On top of that, being disabled cuts your chances of being hired even further. The tunnel vision nature of Right Footed is particularly disheartening, considering that there are few, well-known, award-winning, household-name, motivational speakers for young people in the U.S. So in the various scenes where Jessica is talking to disabled youth, she sticks to the idea of ability, regardless of the differences of experiences that occur to various racial groups. The idea that intersectionality isn’t vital to this film seems to be a great oversight (in my opinion) because while the experience of being disabled is common for all of the students in the film, the way that it plays out in their lives is contingent on their core identifiers.
Pick another scene or the same scene and analyze it through the lens of gender: Jessica rarely (if ever) talks about the effects that her gender has on her life. Despite the fact that she is a minority in everything she does, gender is a topic that is completely avoided in the film. Interestingly, there are few female motivational speakers (when Googled, the initial results show only one woman next to 8 men), few women politicians (with just 20% of the House and Senate being women), and even fewer women pilots (just 4.21% of all pilots in the U.S. according to this article by Air & Space). Despite Jessica’s improbable odds of being a female pilot, motivational speaker, and aspiring politician, the gender barrier isn’t discussed at all. Whether this gap was intended to keep the focus on ability, intersectionality is incredibly important, especially in situations that combine more than two core identifiers that are in the minority (or rather that don’t hold majority power). Especially because the way that each identifier presents in the presence of others is completely different. Specifically, when Jessica visits children in Ethiopia that are disabled, the majority of them are girls. They are locked in the house, unable to go to school, and also seen as worthless because they are girls. The two former points are emphasized through the cinematography and narration of the film, and yet the latter (which is an incredibly salient point) isn’t mentioned at all. The classroom that is filled with disabled children that aren’t able to go to school, has only girls. And yet no one comments on it. In this case, it’s not even a misrepresentation of gender, it’s just that it’s not mentioned anywhere in the film.
I prefer to work in watercolor and acrylic, but broke out the pencils for this project. It was created with regular Dixon Ticonderoga No.2 yellow pencils. The plane is the Ercoupe that Jessica flew in the first half of the movie. The “clouds” are shaped like right feet as an homage to the film. The stamp on the fuselage reads “ABLE” and the stabilizers are shaped like peace signs in commemoration of the CRPD.
Jessica Cox’s Website