Hollywood’s track record for portraying people with disabilities has been sketchy at best. There have been inspirational figures, noble martyrs and lovable oddballs — some of these performances garnering Academy Awards — but there aren’t a lot of people simply living their lives.

The search for truly resonant disability representation in the history of cinema is continuing, but over the decades, many scholars keep returning to a perhaps surprising touchstone: a 91-year-old film set in a circus.

Tod Browning’s most widely known work is “Dracula” (1931), starring Bela Lugosi, but the next year, he broke new ground with a movie featuring an extensive cast of actors with disabilities. Browning’s “Freaks” (available on most major platforms) centers on a close-knit group of circus sideshow performers who rally around a friend after he is betrayed by his lover, a trapeze artist.

Despite the sensationalist spectacle, the sense of both community and agency among the…