Evil albino' of the movies is criticized

February 15, 2012
Peter J. McDonnell, MD

He is director of The Wilmer Eye Institute, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times.

In the movies "The Da Vinci Code" and "The Matrix Reloaded," evil gunmen who are albinos figure prominently.

Key Points

Ophthalmic considerations

The show occasionally has elements of interest to an ophthalmologist.

An interesting thing about the show, "Spartacus," is that it became a huge surprise hit in its first season, which ends just as Spartacus begins his escape and rebellion. But the second season did not get filmed because the 39-year-old star was discovered to have non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Sadly, the disease was not controlled, and the actor died.2

I sometimes watch the series while exercising. Brutally violent but with lots of action, shows like this help me take my mind off the act of exercise. Recently I was watching "Spartacus" and pondering that the actor portraying the title character looks so physically fit but harbors an aggressive cancer that would soon kill him. Then I noticed that, in one scene, he has a subconjunc-tival hemorrhage. Was that an early sign of the lymphoma that would soon take his life, some realistic-appearing makeup, or just a garden-variety hemorrhage that we see so often in our patients and usually amounts to nothing?

Certainly there are multiple forms of ocular and oculocutaneous albinism, and the degree of visual loss may range from severe (absent foveal reflex, nystagmus, severe photophobia, abnormal decussation of optic nerve fibers) to comparatively mild. But by and large, we ophthalmologists know that the depiction of albinos as gun-toting assassins is ironic, to say the least.

In one study of school-age children with albinism, mean best-corrected acuity improved from 20/84 (between 5.5 and 9 years of age) to 20/61 (between 9.5 and 14 years of age).3 The authors thought the improvement might relate to change in the nystagmus, use of the null point, or developmental maturation of the children. It would presumably be helpful to share this hopeful observation with parents when explaining their child's eye condition. What is probably not helpful to these parents is the consistently negative portrayal of people with albinism in film and television.

By Peter J. McDonnell, MD director of the Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times.

He can be reached at 727 Maumenee Building 600 N. Wolfe St. Baltimore, MD 21287-9278 Phone: 443/287-1511 Fax: 443/287-1514

E-mail: pmcdonn1@jhmi.edu

References

1. Early viewers pan Da Vinci Code: Film's release also provokes widespread protests"; no byline; http://CNN.com/ "Entertainment" section / Associated Press Newswire, 17 May 2006; accessed 13 March 2007.

2. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/12/arts/television/andy-whitfield-star-of-spartacus-series-dies-at-39.html

3. Dijkstal JM, et al. Change in visual acuity in albinism in the early school years. JPediatr OphthalmolStrabismus. 2011 ;Jul 6:1-6 (Epub ahead of print).

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