Intelligent Lives | Docs/ology

Intelligent Lives

Director: Dan Habib

Runtime: 70 minutes

The United States is anchored by a handful of self-evident truths, according to the Declaration of Independence: “That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Back when they were first written, those words came with a litany of asterisks. Slowly, imperfectly, those inalienable rights have come closer and closer to becoming a full-throated reality. But Intelligent Lives suggests, gently, that we still have work to do in one important area: that of the mentally disabled.

True, filmmaker Dan Habib tells us that tremendous progress has been made as he and his narrator, actor Chris Cooper, unfold the United States’ sometimes shameful history of neglect and abuse of those once classified as “feeble minded.”

IQ tests, which Cooper says were initially understood to be imperfect, ever-changing guides to mental acuity, became rigid litmus tests segregating people into intellectual have and have-nots. Facilities for the disabled became permanent holding centers—sharing more in common with prisons than schools.  The U.S. philosophy toward the mentally impaired came to be linked with eugenics, a disturbing philosophy that sought to eliminate the “menace of feeble-mindedness” through marriage restrictions, forced sterilizations and, in Cooper’s words, the “warehousing of hundreds of thousands” of people. (Nazi Germany later used the United States’ eugenics program as justification for its own effort to sterilize hundreds of thousands of its own citizens.)

Things have gotten significantly better for the mentally disabled in the last several decades. Intelligent Lives points to the creation of the Special Olympics, which founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver said was designed to “celebrate how marvelous” its participants were, and to the Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law by George H.W. Bush in 1990. “Let the shameful wall of exclusions finally come tumbling down,” Bush said during the signing.

But the movie especially focuses on the daily lives of three primary subjects, all people with significant mental disabilities: Naieer, a fledgling artist, works to express himself through his painting. Naomie takes on an internship at a beauty salon, eventually getting hired as a project assistant. (“When she smiles it just lights up a room,” her new employer says.) Micah, a young man tested with a 40 I.Q., controls his own future, dates a girl named Meghan and graduates from a special program at Syracuse University.

“Sometimes you have to fight for what you want,” Micah says.

Micah, and Habib, understand the fight’s not over. IQ tests remain deeply influential in the opportunities people have—tests that can be inaccurate and are often discriminatory.

While many schools work to integrate the mentally disabled into the general population, Intelligent Lives acknowledges how difficult that can sometimes be. When Micah’s sister, a preschool teacher, works to deal with a mentally disabled youngster in her own class, she’s reminded that Micah’s success was the product of a long, sometimes frustrating process. “His story happened over time,” she says.

Cooper, the narrator, recalls how Jesse’s own doctors discounted his abilities and discouraged the Coopers from integrating Jesse into regular schools. The Coopers ignored their advice, and Jesse not only learned to read, but became a straight-A student.

“Can any attempt to measure intelligence predict a person’s value, or ability to contribute meaningfully to the world?” Cooper asks.

We’re all created equal, the Declaration of Independence tells us. And for all of our differences, we are endowed with certain inalienable rights. We’ve made some tremendous progress over the last couple of centuries in acknowledging and protecting those rights. But when it comes to some of our most vulnerable men and women—people with disabilities that we might avoid or discount— Intelligent Lives reminds us more progress needs to be made.

Intelligent Lives will be screened at the Justice Film Festival in New York City on November 3, 2018 at the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture.

— Written by Paul Asay