Review: Netflix’s ‘Crip Camp’ chronicles the birth of the disability rights movement

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The title of “Crip Camp,” a rousing documentary about the birth of the disability rights movement, means to grab your attention and rightly so. It refers to Camp Jened, a summer retreat in the Catskills where, from 1951 to 1977, many young people with disabilities first experienced the joys of community, the pleasures of sex and the stirrings of political consciousness. No one here actually calls the place “Crip Camp,” but the title — deploying an insult that has been defiantly reclaimed by some of its intended targets — delivers an appreciably blunt message nonetheless: This is not a movie overly concerned with making anyone, disabled or abled, feel comfortable.

Comfort, the movie persuasively argues, is too often the enemy of justice — and the elusiveness of justice turns out to be one of its stealth subjects. More than most real-life stories about marginalized individuals overcoming daunting odds and deep-seated prejudices, “Crip Camp” manages to be at once sweetly affirming and breezily irreverent. (The film, which won an audience award at Sundance, began streaming Wednesday on Netflix.) The wit and charisma of its many interviewees, who toss off their reminiscences and insights with wry matter-of-factness, doesn’t entirely prepare you for the monumental significance of what they accomplished.

On the one hand, there could be nothing more ordinary, even banal, than the reams of faded summer camp footage that fill the documentary’s opening scenes. But in the hands of the directors Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht, who intercut their archival material with present-day interviews, the ordinary is transmuted into something extraordinary. The grainy, mostly black-and-white images of young men and women splashing in a pool, basking in the sun and dancing in the night — sometimes with the help of crutches, wheelchairs and camp counselors — feel both humdrum and momentous.

The simplest scenes are charged with a sense of history in the making, even if the full weight of that history became apparent only in retrospect. It certainly wasn’t apparent to anyone there at the time. If Camp Jened was a kind of Woodstock-adjacent utopia, it was one that came together more or less by accident, born of that free-flowing spirit of the ‘60s and ‘70s where political activism, social experimentation and sexual awakening collided. (A soundtrack featuring Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane vibrantly sets the mood.)

LeBrecht, a sound mixer in Berkeley, draws on personal experience: He was born with spina bifida and found himself at Camp Jened in the summer of 1971. But while we see a younger version of him beaming in much of the footage (which was shot by the People’s Video Theater collective), he pointedly never overwhelms any of his onscreen comrades in this resolutely egalitarian movie. He and other Camp Jened alumni outline some of the challenges of life in a community overseen by inexperienced counselors and marked by its own curious hierarchies: As more than one subject wryly attests, it was deemed far better to have polio than cerebral palsy.

But any internal fractiousness was ultimately subsumed by an unshakable solidarity, and also by the simple agonies and ecstasies of being an American teenager. We hear from more than a few who had formative romantic experiences at Camp Jened, some of which led, in a bring-down-the-house moment, to a camp-wide outbreak of crabs. For many, the assertion and reclamation of an erotic identity — a subject warmly expounded upon by a camp alumna, Denise Sherer Jacobson, who went on to earn a master’s degree in human sexuality — was part of a collective realization that life could be so much more than they had thus far known or experienced.

The most powerful moments emerge in the extended group discussions, where the campers speak — with varying levels of ease and emotion — about their common hardships: a lack of privacy, the overprotectiveness of parents, the callous indifference of strangers. Camp Jened allows them to envision a world in which their rights are fully acknowledged and respected. Or, as the camp’s visionary late director Larry Allison puts it: “We realized the problem did not exist with people with disabilities. The problem existed with people that didn’t have disabilities.”

That realization would bear astonishing fruit in the years to come, as “Crip Camp” shifts from a portrait of New York hippiedom to a celebration of Bay Area radicalism. Many Camp Jened veterans went on to become powerful disability-rights activists, putting the skills they had learned at camp — chiefly the ability to listen to and encourage one another — into practice. The documentary’s most forcefully heroic figure is Judy Heumann, whose lifelong history of activism — from her days as a leader at Camp Jened to her pioneering work at the Berkeley-based Center for Independent Living — is inscribed in scene after eloquent scene.

It was Heumann who led a remarkable, grueling 25-day sit-in in San Francisco in 1977, joining more than 100 activists in occupying federal offices and demanding that Joseph A. Califano Jr., the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, sign regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Califano’s intransigence, as well as his underestimation of his opponents’ physical and political stamina, is infuriating; it was also typical of the era’s ableist norms. A lot of those norms were challenged by Section 504, which predated the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 in prohibiting discrimination and requiring that all federally funded programs be accessible to the disabled.

“Crip Camp” is thus a moving and passionate tribute to the herculean efforts it took — aptly visualized in scenes of disabled demonstrators dragging themselves up the steps of the U.S. Capitol building — to bring about ramps, curb cuts and other essential accessibility provisions. It is also an instructive reminder that effective political strategy requires a community that is not just determined but organized (a message worthy of two of its executive producers, Barack and Michelle Obama).

The documentary could have used another voice or two on the specific difficulties that people with disabilities face in the present, especially when their needs and concerns are often conveniently omitted from the ongoing conversation on inclusion and representation. “Crip Camp” is a vital continuation of that conversation, even if the history it documents is still very much being written.


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