The recent trailer for Marvel’s Inhumans have been met with mixed reviews, but it has also encouraged an unexpected discussion regarding Anson Mount’s character, Black Bolt. Back in May, he announced that he would use an invented sign language to communicate in the show. Some find the practice offensive to Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing individuals; since American Sign Language (ASL) exists, why not use that?
In previous articles I’ve discussed how excited I am that there are characters in the Marvel universe using ASL, so most would assume that I would be offended that Black Bolt will not use ASL and will use an invented sign language. Beth Elderkin of i09 righteously states that he should use ASL regardless. While I appreciate her concern, my question to her is why not ask what Deaf people actually think?
So here’s what Pop Mythology’s resident Deaf Guy™ thinks: I am in full support of using the invented signs.
For context, Black Bolt (who can hear) is the king of the Inhumans, a race of genetically modified humans. Their home city of Attilan exists on the moon, the reason being different throughout comic history and yet-to-be-revealed for the show. Black Bolt’s voice is so powerful that an errant sigh can level mountains, and we get an idea of how powerful he is when an accidental grunt flips a cop car multiple times. To ensure the safety of those around him, he never speaks and relies on his telepathic connection with his wife, Medusa, to communicate for him. It’s the cornerstone of their relationship, and it’s easy to see how they’re doing as a couple based on how well she understands him. This works for the comic books since there is not a delay in Black Bolt conveying a message to Medusa and her voicing it. In a television show that relies on pacing and moving the story along, too many moments of complete silence and then Medusa’s response would feel awkward and slow down the show.
For those who do not share his telepathic bond, Black Bolt relies primarily on gestures and facial expressions.
In the show, the use of what I am calling Tilanese Sign Language (or TSL; Tilan being the language of Attilan) works for various reasons. Mount already remarked that ASL does not exist on the moon and Black Bolt has never lived on Earth so there would be no way for him to learn it. Makes perfect sense.
From an ASL linguistic perspective, it also makes sense. For DHH people who grow up in isolation and do not learn a formal sign language, they invent what the Deaf community calls “home signs.” These are signs the person uses with family and friends that only exist in their bubble and that outsiders would not understand. As a character, Black Bolt lived in complete isolation for 19 years, from infancy to adulthood. He is the only person in Attilan who ‘signs’ and is what the Deaf community would consider linguistically isolated: apart from gestures that are universally understood such as shrugging or nodding, only Black Bolt and his family know what his TSL signs mean. Obviously he’s not deaf, but people outside the Deaf community use ASL for various reasons also.
It’s also worth noting that Anson Mount is not Deaf. And neither is Black Bolt. If Black Bolt were a Deaf character, I would expect him to be played by a Deaf actor. An excellent example is CJ Jones’ character in the film Baby Driver: CJ Jones is a famous Deaf actor to those heavily involved in Deaf culture (and, when I met him eons ago, possibly one of the sweetest people in existence). He plays a Deaf character in the film. This is phenomenal, as there are few roles for Deaf actors and it’s upsetting when a character with a disability is played by someone who does not have the same. It’s similar to transgender characters being played by cisgender actors (like when people complained about Jared Leto in Dallas Buyer’s Club). The lived experience is simply not there.
Personally, I would be more offended if they did use ASL specifically in the show. For one, sign language is not universal whatsoever; even other countries where English is spoken (such as England and Australia) there are different sign languages. For a show that will be released internationally and with a diverse cast, to use ASL specifically would exclude other signed languages.
As far as I know Mount is not fluent in ASL and typically when a hearing actor that lacks fluency tries to sign it just looks terrible. For example, in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Elden Henson (Foggy in the Netflix Daredevil) plays a mute character that uses ASL. He tried, and I appreciated the attempt; it was nice to be the one of the few in the theater to understand his side conversations with another character. But it honestly felt like he was mocking ASL; it was so clunky and awkward that I found it offensive. I highly doubt he worked with someone fluent in ASL, most likely he used a book or a video rather than an actual person. What I find to be more offensive is that people who do not sign will think it is fluent. Knowing a few words in any language does not equal fluency.
Again, I appreciate Elderkin’s concern, but I think her anger is misplaced. What I am concerned about is that the signs used in TSL clash with those of another formal sign language and what should be a serious moment is suddenly hilarious. I am concerned that people will see TSL and assume that it’s ASL, so I hope that Mount consulted with signing individuals to help fine-tune TSL (EDIT: it turns out that he actually did, bless him). Mount is not claiming to know ASL or be fluent; he’s playing a character that is artificially mute who relies on an artificial signed language.
The show could be an excellent opportunity to introduce some elements of Deaf culture, such as Certified Deaf Interpreters (CDIs). These are Deaf individuals who are experts at extracting information from someone with little to no formal sign language, or who use a sign language from another country. They then convey the information to a hearing interpreter. Take the end of the trailer when Black Bolt is arrested, for example: It would be amazing if, because a regular interpreter cannot understand Black Bolt’s signs, a CDI was brought in to meet with Black Bolt instead. That’s probably wishful thinking on my part since the show is already filmed, but a guy can dream.
With all that being said I am very excited to see Tilanese Sign Language, and I applaud Mount for taking Black Bolt in that direction.