Early in the slightly-better-than-serviceable new Netflix documentary “Crip Camp,” there’s a proclamation that Camp Jened – a humble outpost in a mountainous part of New York state that’s been shuttered since the late-‘70s – felt like a utopia. It’s easy to understand why a camp alum would recall the feeling decades later; grainy footage shot of the camp in operation shows joyful young residents with physical disabilities liberated, engaged and understood as people who can be trusted to look after themselves, and think for themselves too. There’s a social hierarchy even in the disabled community, we come to learn; the “normal-looking” polios resident at the top, while those with cystic fibrosis are closer to the bottom. One of them beams with a smile, and asks anyone watching to give him a call; he just likes to talk to people. All these eccentric introductions to each happy-go-lucky camper is enough to make you forgive the template time capsule soundtrack of Grateful Dead, Neil Young and the like—an early miracle in its own right.
Then again, these campers are shaped by the rebellious attitudes of the time. There’s frank conversation of teen infatuation and being annoyed at parents, but also wide acknowledgement – between members of a particular community who had never met before Camp Jened – that life would be a little better if the world they’d eventually return to treated them as equally as they were treated here. It’s a grain of longing that some of them end up fertilizing into action, and later: Change.
After about 40 minutes of focusing in on Camp Jened and the personalities that occupied it on that fateful summer (with the requisite balance of older black-and-white footage and modern-day testimonial), “Crip Camp’s” contours widen, its laid-back rural setting becomes one of urban rallies and the doc transforms into a macro examination of a new American disability rights movement—one the film would have us believe is rooted in the unity that took hold at Camp Jened. It’s an informational and dependably uplifting watch, as any good documentary should be, and sprinkled with some moments conveying what the movement represents even to viewers who may not have a close relationship to someone with a physical handicap. The amount of archival footage at the filmmaker’s disposal here is extraordinary. More often than not, so is their utilization of it.
The movie juggles a cast of characters (including one of the movie’s co-directors, James LeBrecht, a paraplegic) in a shuffle that can occasionally be as overwhelming as “Crip Camp” erratically weaving between political lingo and random hyper-specific anecdote about a certain Camp Jened alum. It’s enough to make you miss the early bit of the movie, back in Camp Jened—then again, that’s kind of the movie’s point.
But the strongest through-line – the element that’s easiest and most worthwhile to latch onto – is the journey taken by Judy Heumann. In a little under two hours, she goes from leading a discussion on what should be on the Jened dinner menu to leading shutdowns of major city streets, eventually emerging as the undisputed voice for the disabled community (she would later found Disabled in Action). “Crip Camp” can threaten its own momentum in catching us up on what the myriad of personalities have accomplished outside Camp Jened in vignettes feel out of sync with the story at large.
Heumann is the documentary’s constant—when “Crip Camp” goes grand in its historical context and appeals to pathos, it’s often to mirror her individual triumphs on what becomes a years-long journey for equality, and one that endures. It’s easy to root her on against the politicians who skimp on meetings that were previously agreed to, especially in the movie’s most impactful stretch showing a sit-in at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in California, where mattresses were donated and the Black Panthers made sure hungry stomachs were fed in an act of solidarity.
Then there’s fantastic little details in the wider canvas. When authorities cut off telephone communication to the outside contingent, who will step up to signal their progress out the window but the deaf activists? Just when the movement’s progress can begin to feel incoherent amid the timelines and various presidential administrations, it’s such details that keep “Crip Camp” absorbing. As if we needed another reason to bemoan the isolated state of millions across the country amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the footage of downtrodden individuals demanding change in a unified voice can make our current state feel that much more limiting.
At the same time, it’s enough to make a viewer wonder what change they can enact once they can take to the streets in huge numbers once again.
Barack and Michelle Obama served as the executive producers to “Crip Camp,” which makes an exorbitant amount of sense; the former First Couple’s enthusiasm for progressive attitudes and the documentary’s optimistic ideology is as appropriate a pairing as hot dogs and the Fourth of July. And the pursuit at the center of “Crip Camp” is as American as any endeavor—a movement sparked by the people, for the people. “I had to fit into this world that wasn’t built for me,” LeBrecht says at one point, encapsulating the mindset of each life affected by a physical disability the movie comes across. If the sense of empowerment doesn’t get through to you in Heumann’s words, it’ll be the powerful images, close to the movie’s end, of a disabled child enthusiastically climbing the steps of Congress that will be undeniable.
“Crip Camp” is rated R for some language, including sexual references
Starring: Judith Heumann, James LeBrecht, Dennis Billups, Larry Allison
Directed by James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham