At the Oscar Luncheon earlier this week, a young man sporting a gray suit and a dazzling smile rubbed shoulders with the likes of Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Jessica Chastain and Kristen Stewart. Unlike those luminaries, Amaree McKenstry-Hall is not an actor, but he is a star – of an Oscar-nominated film. A nonfiction one.
The Netflix short documentary Audible follows McKenstry-Hall during his senior year at the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick, MD. Oscar-nominated director Matt Ogens, a Maryland native, had long wanted to make a film about the school, but it wasn’t until he met McKenstry-Hall that he finally found the perfect charismatic subject to build his film around. McKenstry-Hall says he entertained some doubts initially about participating in the doc, conscious of how, in the age of social media, people can be picked apart.
“Right now, in today’s world, you could be perceived as good or bad… but I try to keep it positive,” he says, his words communicated through an ASL interpreter. “Then I just said,‘ You know what? I’m going to go for it. ‘ I am a Deaf Black man and I really want to show my pride within the Deaf community and share that with everyone. ”
Audible explores Amaree’s involvement with the high school’s championship-caliber football team, the ups and downs of his relationship with once-girlfriend Lera Walkup, a fellow student at MSD, and McKenstry-Hall’s experience growing up the only Deaf person in his family.
“I do feel lonely,” Amaree says in the film. “When I was a kid, they would just talk around me. And I didn’t understand any of it, so I’d just go off on my own. When I run into hearing people out in the world, I feel, as a Deaf person, I am alone. ”
Walkup and Jalen Perry, MSD cheerleaders, also occupy prominent roles in the film (Perry made her transition after filming was completed, and goes by Jazie now).
“I did have some [mixed] feelings ”about appearing in the documentary, Perry admits. “I went back and forth a little bit… [But] when I saw the team who wanted to do the movie, the crew, I thought this is the perfect opportunity, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. The end result of this documentary is very beautiful. ”
Another poignant presence in the film, Teddy Webster, was McKenstry-Hall’s best friend at MSD and Jalen’s “first love” earlier in their teens. Webster transferred from MSD to a hearing school at one point, where he was bullied for being Deaf. Struggling with that and possibly other issues, he took his own life at age 15. McKenstry-Hall, Perry and Walkup still deeply feel his loss.
“It really broke our hearts,” Walkup says. “It was something that we were grieving over, and so we were sharing our stories and ours [mourning] process through the movie. And I think it was a pretty big thing for us to do. ”
“He was a special person,” Perry affirms. “He was someone everyone cherished, and we think about him every day. And it’s been almost five years [since his death] and we’re still thinking about him. “
In Audiblethe three friends visit Webster’s grave.
“We have to honor him in a special way and I think we’re doing that through the film,” Perry says. “Hopefully, people will understand what we are going through and that we have lost someone at such a young age, which is very difficult for us. And so I hope this spreads the message of awareness and love and that we cherish him even to this day. ”
Audible is one of two Oscar-nominated films this year that foreground the lives of Deaf people. The other is CODA, the story of a hearing girl (Emilia Jones) growing up with Deaf parents – a CODA, or Child of Deaf Adults. Along with Jones, the Best Picture nominee stars three Deaf actors – Oscar-nominated supporting actor Troy Kotsur, Oscar winner Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God), and Daniel Durant.
“I think this is very important that Troy got an Oscar nomination. [It shows] Deaf people can do anything. They can be in acting, they can win the Oscar, ”Perry says. “This will show and prove to hearing people that just because we can’t hear doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. We’re showing them that we can really run the gamut on what we can do. And it’s a good representation showing how our worlds are different, but we can still come together for the sake of everyone. ”
Perry, in fact, wants to pursue acting herself, describing her goal as becoming “the first Black, Deaf, trans person in film.” Walkup, now 20, is studying at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC McKenstry-Hall, also 20, is coaching wrestling in Minnesota. But he’s also toying with the possibility of becoming an actor.
The Academy Awards is not a bad place to make industry connections. Seats are always hard to come by for the ceremony, but Netflix says it’s trying to wrangle them for the Audible stars.
Perry is all in if it happens.
“To be on the red carpet, have a little fancy gown,” she muses, “feel super special.”
“I’m sure [Netflix] will let us know when they have more information, ”Walkup says,“ but, I mean, hopefully we can. ”
McKenstry-Hall, sometimes a young man of few words, smiles and says simply, “Ooh, I know that’d be a really big deal to go to the Oscars.”