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‘Crip Camp’ Film Review: Stirring Documentary Recalls Training Ground for Disability Rights Activists

A little-known story of political awakening is the subject of this eye-opening, powerful non-fiction film

Last Updated: March 23, 2020 @ 3:55 PM

There’s no getting around the new health-driven realities of care and prevention disrupting the planet, but as with most stressful reconfigurings of our social, work and home lives, those with disabilities are typically hit hardest.

Ableism is still one of the most ignored and unaddressed prejudices, which makes the arrival via Netflix of the smash Sundance-premiered documentary “Crip Camp” a timely one for sequestered movie-watchers open to being reminded of our world’s diversity of experiences.

Highlighting an under-celebrated chapter of rights activism and revolution — starting in the late ’60s at a woodsy idyll for disabled teenagers, transferring to Berkeley, California’s counterculture openness, and finally to DC and the signing of groundbreaking civil rights legislation — the film tells the story of a landmark movement with verve, humor, and fiery righteousness. In the category of documentaries that demand we assess the kind of society we want, Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht’s personality-rich history is as engaging and inspiring as they come, the origin story for a league of not-so-widely-known, real-life superheroes.

The title refers to the blunt yet affectionate name given to Camp Jened, a retreat in New York state’s Catskills that was started in the 1950s for “handicapped” children, and by the time of Woodstock (which happened up the road) was a hippie-run social experiment in first-taste freedom for the kids always looked at as hopelessly infirm “others,” even at home. With the help of progressive-minded counselors, these teenagers got to be human beings: they could smoke, flirt, snog, drink, party, sing, dance, play sports, and for once — outside the confines of their everyday world, and in freewheeling gab sessions — be listening witnesses to each other’s experiences as marginalized souls who know they have more to offer.

We learn of a hierarchy of disability — based on notions of social normalcy as dictated by everyone else — that put “polios” on top and “CPs” (cerebral palsy) at the bottom, all of which was immediately dissolved in the welcoming air of Camp Jened. LeBrecht, who acts as first-person narrator providing occasional details about his relationship with his disability (he was born with spina bifida), recalls the sweetness of landing his first girlfriend there, and for once being seen as a “cool kid.” There’s even an outbreak of crabs, like something out of a “Meatballs” sequel, which still doesn’t stop these kids from cracking jokes and looking altogether happier to be there rather than anywhere else.

The fact that we can see the frolic and laughter morphing into a deepening camaraderie is due to extraordinary archival videotape footage originally shot by the journalism collective People’s Video Theater between 1970 and 1972. Somewhere between the ramshackle vibe of home movies and the alertness of observers with a like-minded agenda, this first half of “Crip Camp” — bolstered by the recollections of campers Judy Heumann, Denise Sherer Jacobson, and co-director LeBrecht — is especially riveting.

It’s no accident, then, that the filmmakers’ slot in footage of wheelchair-bound, bespectacled Brooklynite Heumann as a 23-year-old corralling a rowdy room of campers into meal-planning (lasagna or no?). That early vérité glimpse of her penchant for leadership is what becomes the stirring force of the second half of “Crip Camp,” when Heumann takes the fight for disability rights to the national stage (with the help of fellow ex-campers) through the organization she founded in 1970, Disabled in Action.

The goal was not just real, life-altering change, but also to shine a light on where the most important shift had to happen — in the attitudes of the able-bodied, like successive presidential administrations (Nixon’s and Carter’s) who hemmed and hawed at enforcing the hard-won anti-discrimination Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which required federally funded spaces (hospitals, schools, etc.) to be made accessible to all.

We see street demonstrations and public disruptions leading to a weeks-long occupation in 1977 of federal offices in the Bay area and around the country. Again, the footage — this time from news cameras covering the story — is remarkable, and the interviewees’ recollections offer memorable details of how exhilarating and dangerous it was for protesters with special needs to often be putting their lives on the line to be heard.

Heumann’s intelligent forthrightness is her superpower, and “Crip Camp” treats her like the human-rights goddess she is. During one tense standoff with a bureaucrat sent from Washington, she makes it plain that the government continuing to treat people like her as separate but equal will only ensure more outrage and wider protests. But it’s when she then demands that officials stop shaking their head at her in ersatz agreement — Heumann’s words choked with barely concealed anger — that years of oppression and futility feel truly unleashed in how swiftly she exposed the patronizing sentiments behind empty promises.

It’s an applause-worthy scene, her “Have you no sense of decency?” moment. It also helps make Newnham’s and LeBrecht’s film, which closes beautifully to the haunting spiritual strain of the gospel classic “Like a Ship,” both the hidden story of a bucolic breeding ground for some of our democracy’s fiercest champions and, in showcasing Heumann’s role, a necessary corrective for anyone unfamiliar with the disability-rights movement’s leading light. Thanks to “Crip Camp,” we can all get a window into how a struggle is unified, people are emboldened, and differences are made.