Rubik’s Cubes and Ableism

A review of The Speed Cubers

By: Nicole Klein

The Speed Cubers (2020) - IMDb
CREDIT: Netflix and IMDB

The Speed Cubers is an unusual documentary. It (at least somewhat) sheds light on the eccentric sport of speed cubing, the sport of solving Rubik’s Cubes at lightning fast speeds. The promise of spectating this unusual activity is in and of itself enough of a draw to this documentary, but The Speed Cubers isn’t about speed cubing alone. The Speed Cubers documents the lives of two of its most renowned sportsman, Feliks Zemdegs, a famously record-breaking champion of speed cubing tournaments the world over, and his friendly rival Max Park, a young  autistic Korean-American speed cuber well on his way to usurping nearly all of Zemdegs’s records. The Speed Cubers spends its time documenting the lives of these two experts from the time they picked up their first cubes, to their budding friendship to their most recent cube-duel at the World Cubing Association World Championship in 2019. While director Sue Kim’s debut documentary is well executed on a technical level, it suffers from one huge glaring issue that detracts from its visual style, its camera direction, and literally anything else about it that was even remotely decent. Documentaries, by nature, are not unbiased works. Documentaries are made with agendas in mind, and the agenda of The Speed Cubers is turning Max Park into ‘inspiration porn’. The Speed Cubers turns Max Park, likely a more complex individual than The Speed Cubers portrays him, into inspiration porn by using Park to convey the same tired old pesimistic narratives about autism spouted by ‘charitable’ non-autistic people for a very long time; that autism in and of itself is a tragedy to those around the autistic individual and that the success of autistic people in society impinges on their ability to perform ‘normalcy’.

The portrayal of Max Park in The Speed Cubers is a near perfect example of inspiration porn. The late disabled comedian Stella Young, at her 2014 TEDx talk, coined the term ‘inspiration porn’.  Images of armless men playing the guitar and blind women painting captioned with seemingly benign phrases such as ‘what’s your excuse’ or ‘the only disability as a bad attitude’ are examples of inspiration porn. These images are not created for disabled people; their purpose is to encourage abled people to be motivated and feel better about themselves. These sorts of images come with the heavy implication that those disabled people are somehow lesser than their abled counterparts because they are disabled. Inspiration porn. Inspiration porn portrays basic tasks as being revolutionary feats simply because they are being performed by disabled people, which serves to lower the bar for disabled people in society.   

My Review of Netflix's 'The Speed Cubers' as an Adult With Autism
CREDIT: YahooLife and Dr. Kerry Magro Ed.D

Park is treated this way by The Speed Cubers. Much of the documentary focuses on the fact that he has autism, so much that autism becomes Park’s entire character trait. Max is made one dimensional by the documentary’s focus on his autism, as everything he is or does is framed through it. The ‘talking heads’ that surround him, his parents, friends, and various commentators will only ever talk about Park’s emotions as they relate to his autism. If Park is devastated by a loss, he’s only devastated because his poor autistic mind can’t regulate his emotions. Park is congratulated for doing normal things, things like having friends and going to social events, things that other autistic people ordinarily do. Park’s love of speed cubing is only framed as being a product of one of the symptoms of his autism: hyperfocusing on tasks.

While the rest of the film treats Max Park like inspiration porn, Park’s story, according to The Speed Cubers is only a success story in spite of his autism, not because of it. Each segment that highlights Park’s successes highlights some aspect of ‘normalcy’ he has learned to perform while competing; aspects like goal-setting and gracefully accepting defeat. Present in the credits are stories of what Max has been up to since the documentary was filmed, such as the riveting and powerful act of attending a wedding. What The Speed Cubers fails to highlight are Park’s advantages, advantages that come from a combination of sheer passion, determination, and the unique quirks his autism affords him.  One needs to be a gifted mathematical thinker in order to not only solve a Rubik’s Cube, but to solve one at lightning fast speed. Mathematical gifts are traits both expert speed cubers and autistic people have in common. Making Park’s successes into inspiration porn is not the most egregious sin this documentary commits. While Park’s successes are central to The Speed Cubers, Park himself is disturbingly silenced.

speed cubers 2
Max Park solving a Rubik’s Cube . CREDIT: Ready Steady Cut

Max Park, the young man who’s practically the central focus of this documentary never gets interviewed. The Speed Cubers does not allow Park to speak for himself, to share his own feelings in his own way. There are rare moments of Park’s voice interspersed throughout, but they come in the form of short ‘cinéma vérité’ sequences where Park and company are followed around with a handheld camera. By depriving the audience of interviews with Park himself, the audience is deprived of Park’s perspective on the events that unfold, as Park never shares his opinions of them. This is a trend in The Speed Cubers that disturbingly echoes the real-world trend of well-intentioned abled people speaking over and deciding what is best for the disabled without taking the words of said disabled people into account.  Bereft of voice, Max Park becomes an empty vessel to be filled with the biases of the documentary.

While solving a Rubik’s cube at the speeds Max Park solves them is by no means an ordinary task, Park’s skill serves as the inspiration part of this film’s shameless inspiration porn, especially when contrasted to the way his autism is talked about. This film is never in short supply of ableism; discrimination against disabled people.  Director Sue Kim seems to have chosen segments of the interviews she conducted that contain the rhetoric of those who see autism as something abhorrent. Kim’s interviews with Park’s parents are particularly worthy of note in this regard, as they take on the role of Park’s perspective of the events onscreen.  Where Park isn’t given the opportunity to speak, his parents are. From the moment Max Park is introduced, his parents talk of Park’s birth and babyhood like his existence is actually painful for them. The Speed Cubers dedicates a whole segment to the ‘tragedy’ of his parents having to raise him and how horrible they thought having an autistic son was.  To emphasis the ‘calamity’ that was Park’s childhood, this segment is complemented with a moody score, at least until Parks’ first steps to ‘normality’. The parade of ableism doesn’t stop there. Aside from blaming Park’s faults, including his disappointment with losing some of his competitions (something anyone competing in anything would feel), on his autism, Park is treated like a charity case whenever the documentary focuses on his friendship with Feliks Zemdegs.

Speed Cubers review: A Netflix hidden gem about Rubik's Cube ...
Max Park (left) with his friend and mentor, Feliks Zemdegs (right). Credit: Polygon and Netflix

When The Speed Cubers initially introduced Feliks Zemdegs, one might be mistaken if they were to think that he was going to share the spotlight with Max Park. While he doesn’t get as much screen time as Park, he inadvertently plays into the ableist narrative that this film conveys.  Zemdegs acts as Park’s ‘normal’ foil. Unlike Park, Zemdegs is interviewed multiple times throughout. Rather than focus on a single aspect of Zemdegs’s character, he is multifaceted. The audience is allow to see Zemdegs as a regular human being, as not only are his speed-cubing skills showcased, his personality is. Zemdegs can celebrate his victories and lament his frustrations all without The Speed Cubers pinning his flaws, skills, and emotions on some immutable characteristic he possesses. Park and Zemdegs form a sort of friend/mentor relationship as Park makes his way toward breaking all of Zemdegs’s records. While on the surface, this seems like an uplifting story that would restore an audience’s faith in humanity, there are darker undertones to the way Park’s and Zemdegs’s friendship is portrayed. Without Park’s perspective, Kim’s direction seems to put Zemdegs on a pedestal for his friendship with Park. Coupled with the documentary’s portrayal of Zemdegs as this compassionate and virtuosic mensch of a human being, Zemdegs’s friendship with Park comes off as a paternalistic relationship. Friendship with Park becomes a charitable act, a civil duty rather than a mutual rapport, thus bringing Park to the level of the beaten dogs and starving children featured in philanthropic guilt-trip ads. Park becomes a charity case, one that serves to make Zemdegs seem more altruistic.

Who is Feliks Zemdegs? Meet The Speed Cubers star and world champion
Felik Zemdegs. Credit: Reality Tidbit

Despite its courtship with ableist rhetoric, The Speed Cubers is appealing on a technical level. Kim’s creative use of the people she documents as the lens through which the audience experiences what’s onscreen is definitely worthy of praise. Through the introduction of Feliks Zemdegs, the audience is made aware of the sport of speed-cubing and all that it entails. When introduced, Zemdegs is almost an audience surrogate, a gateway into the world of speed-cubing. The documentary’s use of visual technique strikes a good balance between being frenetically fast paced while still being easy on the eyes. Cubing competitions are colorful and contain enough energetic quick cuts to build up tension and hype while still allowing the audience enough time to analyze what they’re watching. The slower-paced segments that provide background for the events onscreen take on pastel hues and usually lack a score so as to immerse the audience in the reality of Park’s and Zemdegs’s personal lives and struggles.

While well executed on a technical level, The Speed Cubers is an insult to curious viewers looking for a good documentary, disabled people and their social circles, and ultimately, speed cubers themselves. Rather than focus on this little-known sport and the community it inspires, The Speed Cubers takes a different and less savory route. The Speed Cubers is only tangentially about speed cubing, as it instead focuses on making inspiration porn of one of the sport’s most well decorated champions (who happens to be autistic).  When The Speed Cubers isn’t paternalistically congratulating Max Park for doing normal things that even other autistic people do, its director, through use of editing, interview choice, and even the use of the soundtrack deprives Park of agency and characterizes his autism as something sad and burdensome to his family. Ultimately, The Speed Cubers can hardly be called a speed cubing documentary. Sure, speed cubing is involved, but the sport and what it entails is hardly the focus. This documentary is nearly a hit piece, a paternalistic procession of seemingly ‘benevolent’ bigotry against autism and all who have it. Do not reward the makers of this documentary with even a casually curious view. Ableist tropes like the ones in The Speed Cubers are tired, old, and irritating. The Speed Cubers, like the ideology it purveys, is best left as a forgotten relic of the past.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s