‘Roll With Me’ star Gabriel Cordell on his inspiring journey across America
When I spoke to director Lisa France on the documentary Roll With Me, the film was yet to be screened in New York, nor available on Netflix. But a lot can change in a month.
Last Wednesday, I was lucky to experience an intimate screening of the documentary at ImageNation in Harlem. The screening of the film was enabled by ARRAY; a grassroots distribution, arts and advocacy collective founded by renowned filmmaker Ava DuVernay.
In our interview, France described to me the grueling filmmaking process — a process that was amplified by the sense of uncertainty that underpinned every day of the journey. With very limited funds, no professional crew, the documentary participant’s well-being and lives constantly under threat, and finally, the struggle of having seven and very different characters on a ride across America, the journey was undoubtedly a wild and unpredictable.
I was finally able to put a face to the seemingly unimaginable ensemble that was described to me. More specifically, the documentary unveiled the man behind the awe-inspiring idea to roll across America in a standard wheelchair.
His name is Gabriel Cordell. He is a paraplegic and recovering drug addict.
In the opening moments of Roll With Me, we learn that Cordell’s injury leaves him only feeling from the chest up.
Yet, as Cordell emphasizes in the film, his condition does not quell him from being aroused or feeling desire for another person. He cites his drug use as his attempt to fill the sexual void that developed as a result of his accident. These moments in the film not only contextualize his drug addiction but redraw attention to the need of providing more representations of disabled people, reminding wider society of their humanity and their daily struggles.
In speaking to Kulture Hub on the subject of the limited media representation of disabled people, as well as common misconceptions of disabled people, Cordell stated,
“Most people associate my injury with not walking. It’s so much more than that. Walking is the least of a paraplegic’s problems. It would probably be on the bottom of a wish list for things I could ask for with my injury. It was important to represent people with disabilities, to show that it’s not about their disability, it’s about their ability.”
At the age of 42, Cordell’s started his journey to sobriety and it was a journey that was maintained through the support of the YMCA in Burbank, California.
Yet, at the age of 18, Cordell had made a promise to himself that by the time he turned 45 he would accomplish something extraordinary. Cordell came to the realization that his sobriety was contingent on the premise of needing something to strive for. More pointedly, Cordell needed to do something extraordinary in order to get out of the downward spiral he had found himself in after years of drug abuse.
Cordell was vehemently committed to realizing what his potential was. Though the route people take to figure out what one’s potential is certainly differs, for Cordell, the route was a literal one — comprising of 3,100 miles and 70 thousand feet of elevation (to put that into perspective, that is Mt. Everest x2), in the timeline of 100 days.
It was a desire that was strong enough to kickstart his journey and prompted Cordell to start guerrilla campaigning for someone to document his roll across America. Alternating his time between physical training for the roll and doing outreach, Cordell went to film schools in the search for producers and directors, even putting an ad on Craigslist in the hope to get someone to join the project.
When director Lisa France officially came on board, Cordell could exclusively focus on his training. Shaping up to 8 months of both training and sobriety, Day 1 finally arrived and on a rainy day at the Santa Monica piers in California, the monumental journey began.
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The documentary follows Cordell from his first roll, to his last. The rest of “the bad news bears” followed by car and traveled across the country with an RV. The group was a dysfunctional family, albeit, most families are.
The group consisted of a Guatemalan marine vet with PTSD, a homeless guy with Asperger’s, a recovering drug addict and cocaine fiend who lost everything, a gang-banger drug-addict Palestinian Catholic, a career-smoker paraplegic and recovering drug addict, and finally, a lesbian filmmaker. How about that?! When I asked Cordell on what were some of the unanticipated challenges that emerged from the roll, he stated,
“I expected the rolling to be difficult, I expected to roll at all hours of the day, in all kinds of conditions. I expected to roll until my shoulders fell off or I got scraped off the pavement. But how difficult it was to deal with the dynamics of the group? That, that I didn’t expect.”
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“I knew when you deal with people it’s unpredictable but the group of people that we had, and I love them to death, but they had their own issues and so trying to have everyone on the same page, I did not expect that, because I have never been put in that position.”
While the task of dealing with an array of characters, personalities and group dynamics were difficult, Cordell emphasized that everyone remained on track with the goal to get to the end — their commitment was faultless.
The makeshift crew became a family, with Cordell transforming into a father figure for the team, many of whom sadly shared the experience of having fraught relationships with their respective fathers.
On its surface, Roll with Me is a story about a man who is trying to push his standard wheelchair across the U.S. Yet, it evolves into a story about Cordell shepherding his nephew Christopher to sobriety in addition to Cordell being an admirable model for the other crew members and everyone he encounters along the way. In short, the journey becomes a testament to the human spirit.
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Undoubtedly, Cordell’s physical endurance was tested. Just as his physical strength was tested, so was his emotional and psychological stamina. As Cordell asserted in our interview,
“My will is what carried me through.”
At the same time, the source of inspiration was both reciprocal and twofold.
Cordell was fueled by the support and inspiration of those around him, the people they encountered and the help they received along the way. The police, passers-by, local businesses, schools and communities galvanized Cordell and his ensemble to get to the final destination of West Hempstead, NY.
“You know, as time went on and I saw the reaction of people, the amount of energy and inspiration that I had given people, made me realize that this is bigger than me. That the roll is just the vehicle for the bigger message. Yes, I happen to be in a wheelchair. But this journey is about the human spirit. What the will can endure. It just became a human story.”
In our interview, Cordell expressed that he is overwhelmed by the response of the film. He relayed how often people have come up to him after the film’s screenings to thank him, share their struggles, and have revealed to him how Roll With Me has been the impetus for them to make changes to their lives.
In discussing his film as a source of inspiration to others, Cordell noted,
“I can give you the most inspiring story, the most inspiring words, but at the end of the day, and this is with anything, if you do the work, you ask for help, anything worth doing, is going to take more than just you. I’m not a superhuman. I don’t have a gift. You are looking at a person, who had a huge disadvantage, that worked tremendously hard and asked for help and was able to accomplish this.”
In stressing how proud of the film he is, he declared,
“Even if we had the greatest people in Hollywood, I don’t think they could have done a better job.”
Admittedly, Cordell still finds his history-making accomplishment surreal. Nonetheless, his body is a daily reminder that he indeed made history.
On what’s next for Cordell? He also is a motivational speaker and continues to share his story. But Cordell is continuing to challenge himself and roll. This past September, he reached the summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado, a place he had deliberately avoided in his cross-country roll 5 years ago.
Cordell is now set to tackle and roll through Death Valley, in California, a site that is 250 feet below sea level and is arguably the hottest place on Earth. Evidently, Cordell is showing no signs of slowing down and he is continuing to roll.