Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (2020) ★★★1/2
Directed by James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham
Crip Camp is a Netflix film, produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, but I had the unusual experience of seeing it on the big screen a few weeks ago for a press screening. I say unusual not only because this is a documentary that most people will watch at home but because I ventured out to see it when people were just starting to feel nervous about Coronavirus. I wasn’t even sure I should go, but at that time, my kids were still in school, my husband was still going into to work and out to evening events and except for everyone washing their hands a lot, things were relatively normal. It’s eerie how quickly things have changed.
Anyway, I went into the screening feeling anxious and scatterbrained but left feeling centered and full of hope. Crip Camp tells the story of the disability rights movement, which was seeded at a teen summer camp called Camp Jened. The camp itself, located in upstate New York near Woodstock, was ordinary and in terms of its offerings. There was a pool, arts and crafts, sports, and music. The usual. What made it extraordinary was that every kid who went was disabled, which meant that a bunch of teenagers who were used to being pushed to the side were suddenly front and center. For the first time in their lives, the kids experienced what it was like to be among people who were not put off or scared by their disabilities, and who saw them in terms of their personalities, interests, and dreams. It was so freeing that for many of the campers, it was a political awakening. As one camper puts it, there was a realization that “the problem with the disabled isn’t with the disabled, it’s with the outside world.”
For a documentary called Crip Camp, there is actually not a lot of time spent in the camp—although the footage from those years is a wonderful time capsule. You see the 1970s spirit in the laid-back counselors who let teenagers be teenagers and listen to music, joke around, and enjoy summer romances. The kids also have thoughtful talks as they compare their school and home life situations. What arises from their discussions is a collective understanding that they had been unfairly shut out of public institutions and spaces, including public schools. For many of the campers, simple architectural changes like adding ramps and widening doorways have the potential to change the trajectory of their lives, allowing them to pursue higher education and careers.
The majority of the documentary focuses on the activism of the campers after they leave Camp Jened. It took an incredible amount of organization to get from a society where there was little to no thought given to accessibility, to one where ramps, elevators, and a variety of educational services are a legal requirement. One camper, Judy Heumann, stands out as an example of calm, focused leadership as she organizes her old friends in a grueling weeks-long sit-in against the San Francisco Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. You get to watch her and the other campers grow up over the course of the documentary, and the filmmakers do a good job of helping you to keep track of a large group of campers, even as they jump back and forth in time. At the end of Crip Camp, the filmmakers re-visit the site of Camp Jened, which closed decades ago and whose original buildings have since been razed. Now, it’s just an empty clearing in the woods–and yet, that’s all it really needed to be: a spaced cleared for these kids to talk. For me, it was really moving to realize that just giving these teenagers a place to be together was enough to start a movement.
We’re living a time when we need collective action more than anything, not only to save us from this global pandemic of Coronavirus but also to address the climate crisis. If you need hope in humanity’s ability to work together to achieve positive change, Crip Camp will deliver.