Furiosa: Disability, Representation and Empowerment

Let’s be honest. Who would have thought that Mad Max: Fury Road would be such an empowering movie to so many marginalized groups? The latest entry in the franchise, coming 30 years after Beyond Thunderdome (1985), is rife with representation and inclusion of people generally ignored by Hollywood movies. This is in addition to being a masterfully-made action film that still holds an unbelievable 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and 89% on Metacritic. I don’t think anyone could have predicted that this film, helmed by director of the originals George Miller, would perform this well critically.

But what I want to talk about is Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, and her prosthetic left arm. From the very first trailer we see Furiosa and her prosthesis, and it looks very cool. In the vein of all things Mad Max it looks like it was cobbled together out of machine parts in a dusty workshop. It is all iron and wire mesh and tubes and doesn’t look comfortable at all.

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Nerd moment: We can clearly see Furiosa move her mechanical fingers at certain points, which leaves me to wonder at the exact inner workings of her prosthesis. I wouldn’t describe anything in the Mad Max films as “electronic”, but a crude myoelectric setup isn’t impossible, or it could be an electric-powered device. I don’t see the cables normally associated with a body-powered device, nor does Furiosa seem to use her right arm to operate it. I imagine that more than anything her prosthesis runs on movie magic, but that’s okay. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief!

Now, I was prepared for the inevitable “moment” in this film that I’ve seen too often in movies and TV shows where an amputee character shows up. The moment when an able-bodied character gawks at their prosthetic or comments on it in some passively negative way, doubting the amputee’s ability. I figured that in this movie it would be Max who would say or do something and Furiosa would have to prove herself to him.

I was completely wrong. Not only do Furiosa’s soldiers, the War Boys, never say a word about it, they never even glance at it. Her arm isn’t commented on, the camera doesn’t linger on it, they never treat it as something strange. Believe me when I say that this is highly unusual, that a movie may never comment on a person’s artificial limb, but there will always be a cut to it or the camera will pan over it for several seconds, as if to say “look at this, isn’t it weird?”

The “moment” never comes in Fury Road. And when Max and Furiosa meet, well… things don’t go quite as I had imagined.

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This is possibly the most brilliant aspect of how the movie treats its disabled character. Furiosa seems as comfortable without her prosthesis as she does with it. In the scene where she meets Max, she almost kills him, and is only beaten because War Boy Nux helps Max subdue her. Without her prosthesis and without even a working gun, Furiosa takes on the the title character and fights him to a standstill. I was bouncing in my seat during this fight, as it’s something I never imagined I would see. At one point, Furiosa even smacks Max across the face with her stump, which I know from experience can be just as painful as a punch.

See, Furiosa’s comfort with herself mirrors my experience as an amputee. I feel just as home with or without my prosthetic leg, and seeing that onscreen felt fantastic. Furiosa removes her prosthesis several times during the movie, and each time it is shown to be normal, her confidence never wavers.

Furiosa’s prosthesis is never commented on by any character in any capacity. It is allowed to just be a part of her, and everyone seems to know that and accept it. I expected some backstory, some discussion of it, but that never happened. Please understand that the “tragic story of how the amputee lost their limb” always appears. Miller assumes that the audience will accept Furiosa’s prosthesis just as the other wasteland dwellers do, and it works. Charlize Theron plays an amputee perfectly by doing nothing differently from an able-bodied person.

Furiosa never has her prosthesis taken from her. She never has it break at a critical moment or hamper her in any way. While there is drama to be found there, it happens so often in other movies that it was refreshing to not see it happen here. Furiosa is just as capable as Max or anyone else in the film, and her amputation never gets in the way of that.

Her capability comes from being a badass, by the way. Her artificial arm doesn’t grant her superpowers like the Winter Soldier, it is just a replacement for her limb. A common trope in movies featuring prosthetic limbs is that they empower the amputee beyond a normal person in some way. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t count it as amputee representation, because having a prosthesis doesn’t grant me any special powers. The cyborg badasses of fiction are a method by which able-bodied people map their desire to be even more able onto the bodies of amputees, just another power fantasy.

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The one time Furiosa ever uses her arm as an out-and-out weapon is perhaps one of the coolest moments in the movie, and certainly one of my favorites. This is another thing that fiction does all too often: showing an amputee (or worse an able-bodied person “borrowing” a prosthetic limb) using their prosthesis as a weapon. Again, nothing wrong with that. It is a valid tactic (believe me), but too often it’s a one-note moment, or a gimmick that defines the character. Fury Road earns that moment, and in doing so made me forget the trope for a moment.

The treatment of Furiosa and her prosthesis in this movie blew me away. By the end, I was so impressed that it brought a tear to my eyes. This movie sets a high bar for future films to pass when it comes to representation of the disabled. Not just representation: empowerment. I felt empowered by watching Furiosa in this movie. It is incredibly rare for me to see an amputee character in a movie who makes me feel good about myself.

I hope that in the future, movies take note of Mad Max: Fury Road when including disabled characters. More than anything else, this movie takes the image of a disabled person, an amputee, and makes it normal. Furiosa isn’t treated like a freak or a fragile prop because of her amputation. She is arguably the main character, the driving force of the movie, a badass fighter who also displays compassion, empathy, and rage. Furiosa is a complex character, one that I had no problems rooting for. In a world of gas-guzzling death-trucks, white-painted barbarian mutants and grizzled old women warriors on motorcycles, Furiosa and her prosthesis are just… normal.

Mad Max: Fury Road

I went into Mad Max: Fury Road with just the trailers and my vague memories of the old movies in mind. I hadn’t read any reviews or looked up a plot synopsis, so I had no idea what I was in for. It doesn’t really hit you when you watch it, but Fury Road is a 2-hour chase scene with a barely a break in the action. The characters aren’t in constant motion for maybe six minutes of screen time, and the plot (what little there is of it) shares that same unrelenting pace. That’s not a dig at the movie, the relatively small amount of exposition and dialogue is a strength of the film.

Max Rockatansky, played by Tom Hardy, is a man of few words, as he should be. I’m pretty sure Max has more grunts than actual lines in the movie, but Hardy sells them perfectly. Max has been around too long, seen too many people die on his watch and its gotten to him. At the start of the film he’s been broken by the wasteland.

Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is the real driving force behind the film. She is the most well-developed character as well as the most interesting. Her distinctive look, shaven hair, forehead anointed with grease and elaborate prosthetic arm, distinguishes her from the War Boys. She looks the part the battle-scarred general. From her first appearance we can tell she’s up to something, a note of uncertainty in her sun-induced glare, but her confidence never wavers as she leads the War Boys out on the titular Fury Road.

Rounding out the main cast is Immortan Joe, played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, an aging warlord who uses theatrics and a costume to maintain his image as a powerful warrior while controlling a vast reserve of fresh water from his mesa stronghold, The Citadel. Joe provides the water, and the dusty masses below provide worship and (presumably) children that are pressed into service as War Boys, the white-painted warriors who make up the bulk of Immortan Joe’s forces.

While on a routine mission, Furiosa deviates from the plan, and Immortan Joe realizes that she is helping his harem of slaves escape, and quickly calls up all his forces to pursue her. Max finds himself used as a hood ornament for one of the pursuit vehicles, driven by War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult). During the first leg of the chase, Max manages to make his escape and reluctantly joins up with Furiosa and the Wives.

The relationship between Max and Furiosa is one of uncertainty and mutual distrust at first. There is one early scene where Max methodically grabs every gun and weapon in the cab of the War Rig and throws them into a bag, all while keeping a gun on Furiosa. But slowly they come to an understanding, one that is shown rather than told, as we see them relying on each other more and more in each conflict with Immortan Joe.

There is another scene later in the movie where Max attempts to make a difficult shot with the group’s only rifle. Down to the last bullet, Furiosa requests the gun. Without much hesitance, Max gives it to her and she uses his shoulder as a stabilizer to make the shot. With minimal dialogue, the film shows how Furiosa and Max now trust each other to a degree, and recognize each others’ strengths.

These small moments do more to characterize both Furiosa and Max than any amount of dialogue could. You see them begin to trust each other and work in tandem over the course of the film, which proves to be one of the best parts of the experience. There is barely a moment for characters to have the peace for a conversation, and rather than leave the characters hollow, director George Miller chooses to show you their development instead.

The action is the big draw of the film, and it succeeds at being one of the best action movies I’ve seen in a long time. If you like car chases, you will like Mad Max: Fury Road, because that’s what this movie is: one long car chase. But what a car chase it is, filled with practical effects, great stunt-work and a bizarre array of vehicles, no two of which are the same.

In addition to the cobbled-together vehicles of Immortan Joe, there are three other wasteland groups with their own interesting vehicles. I call the first group the Porcupine People, because seemingly every vehicle they have is covered in an absurd amount of spikes. Then there are the Canyon Bikers, who look very much like Tusken Raiders and employ the vertical terrain of the desert canyon along with their grenades to bring down travelers. I won’t say anything about the third group to avoid spoilers, but they also have an interesting aesthetic.

Fury Road is a more than worthy addition to the Mad Max series. Furiosa carries most of the movie, with Max acting as sort of an audience-insert, someone who is unfamiliar with this particular part of the wasteland, but knows the score. Like Max, the audience knows the world, at least in broad strokes. We know how these apocalypse stories usually go, just as Max knows roughly what’s going to happen. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the plot of Fury Road, but the characterization, action and cinematography are what make in an excellent film. The wonderfully understated performances of Theron and Hardy keep the audience invested, and the action rarely lets up, giving our capable heroes lots to do and plenty of chances to show off. So far, Mad Max: Fury Road is my favorite movie of 2015, and I highly recommend you go see it.