Movie Review: Crip Camp
By Matthew Huntley
April 6, 2020
Perhaps the main title, “Crip Camp,” and the poster for it, which features a disabled kid in a wheelchair being pushed around by a guitar-holding camp counselor, are misleading. Because even though this spirits-raising documentary does, indeed, tell us about Camp Jened, a sublime retreat nestled in New York’s Catskills that served as a sanctuary for kids with special needs - and even begins with its still living campers recollecting how this heavenly place made them feel normal, included and empowered - the film as a whole is about so much more than the camp.
It’s a good thing the film has a more fitting subtitle: “A Disability Revolution.” In many ways, this is an epic, one that spans four decades, and suggests Camp Jened, and other places like it, played a pivotal role in lighting the fuse for members of the disabled community to see themselves as people—people who mattered—and were therefore entitled to the same basic privileges as everyone else. Following their time at Jened, many turned to activism to guarantee the kinds of civil rights and amenities that non-disabled people often take for granted.
About the camp, director James LeBrecht, himself a disabled man and former camper, says, “[it] changed the world, and nobody knows this story.” In a rather traditional and straightforward manner, LeBrecht and co-director Nicole Newnham set out to reveal Camp Jened’s legacy and the result is entertaining, informative and heartwarming, although not exactly risky.
While the history behind Camp Jened is inherently interesting, what keeps “Crip Camp” as a whole moving is the way it constantly adds layers to its narrative, starting off simple and evolving into something deeper and farther-reaching than a just a trip down memory lane for its handicapped subjects.
When we first meet LeBrecht, it’s in footage from an old newscast that shows how he was physically able to perform his job as a sound designer at the Berkeley Repertory Theater while living with spina bifida, a birth defect that rendered his legs immobile. When he was 15, he spent his first summer at Jened, a camp “run by hippies” that fostered activities like sports, singing, filmmaking (it was here where LeBrecht got his first taste of videography), swimming, and yes, even sex and romance.
All this was done in an effort by the camp’s founder, Larry Allison, to make its participants not feel marginalized, a concept that was mostly abstract to them. And you know what? It worked. As we watch old video footage taken at the camp, which has since closed, we get the sense the kids’ summers here were the first time they felt like they were calling the shots, making such seemingly trivial decisions as what they should all make for dinner the one night they knew the camp’s cooks would be taking the night off. Judy Heumann, who contracted polio at 18 months, projects her voice to a crowd and asks, “How many want lasagna?”
As it turns out, this would mark the beginning of Judy’s role as a passionate leader, and from this point on, “Crip Camp” transitions from light reflection on a small group of young people’s formative years to an all-encompassing, cultural history lesson. The film focuses a lot on Heumann, which is appropriate since her story is not only impressive but also extends to so many others from the disabled community.
Among other things, Heumann became the first teacher in New York City to use a wheelchair after she sued the Board of Education for discrimination on the basis she was physically handicapped. She also co-founded Disabled In Action, an organization that, to this day, seeks to protect the civil rights of people with disabilities. And perhaps her most notable accomplishment was spearheading the 26-day 504 Sit-in in San Francisco, during which over 100 hundred protestors occupied the Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) office and demanded the regulations set forth by the Rehabilitation Act, as they apply to the handicapped, actually be enforced.
Learning about these accomplishments, we get the sense all of Heumann’s pursuits were part of her lifelong mission to not be viewed as “sick,” but simply disabled, and that non-disabled people need only see her as someone who happens to be sitting in a chair, not as someone to fear or as someone who’s weak. In fact, she’s just the opposite - Heumann is uncommonly bold, intelligent and outspoken. And even though many of her endeavors, including the 504 Sit-in, were a success, she never became complacent. She didn’t think she should have to feel grateful for basic services such as access to a public bathroom. Her persistence, along with so many others’, eventually led to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which, despite being a landmark law, still isn’t perfect.
While the historical events presented in “Crip Camp” are stirring, LeBrecht and Newnham luckily break up the protest footage and news stories with personal asides that help them accomplish what they set out to do, which is to demystify and humanize the handicapped. One such moment involves Denise Sherer Jacobson, who has cerebral palsy, reminiscing about losing her virginity and earning a degree in human sexuality. She’s funny and candid about her past and the scenes she shares with her polio-stricken husband, Neil, are sweet and romantic. They remind us that, yes, even handicapped people have sex drives and yearn to fall in love.
Other scenes are more heartbreaking yet redemptive, including when journalist HolLynn D’Lil recalls how she became a paraplegic at 22 after a truck ran her off the road. “I had all the assumptions and prejudices that people have about people with disabilities…and suddenly I was one.” She would go on to write a memoir about the 504 Sit-in and it’s perhaps through D’Lil’s story that we’re able to gain the most insight and empathy toward the handicapped because we realize the potential loss of control over one’s body doesn’t discriminate and can affect anyone at any time, and if this is the case, shouldn’t we all make sure we’re prepared and that everybody is taken care of?
I suggested the film is rather safe in its approach. Structurally, “Crip Camp” is a by-the-numbers documentary, with the usual talking heads, archival footage, interstitials that give us additional information and updates, etc. This is adequate, but I wish LeBrecht and Newnham had tried to make it more experimental from a filmmaking point of view. Something about the presentation just feels too standard and basic.
The movie also features an overly familiar soundtrack, and even though songs like “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield, “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James & The Shondells, and “Volunteers” by Jefferson Airplane are classics and fine for capturing the cultural zeitgeist, they’ve been used so many times in popular culture that I sometimes felt I was watching an episode of “The Wonder Years” or “Forrest Gump,” which was actually distracting. I get that the filmmakers wanted to make their movie as accessible and digestible as possible, but there are other, less recognizable songs from its eras they could have leveraged.
Still, the movie achieves its goal. I walked away from it enlightened, inspired, and informed about an aspect of the civil rights movement that rarely, if ever, gets the attention it deserves. Hopefully “Crip Camp” will start a trend that will encourage other storytellers to bring to light lesser known histories so that we all might learn from them. However, it’s going to take a lot more than a well-intentioned documentary to change people’s behaviors and methods of thinking. To be honest, even after watching a film as important and eye-opening as “Crip Camp,” I know I’m not going to all of a sudden question or be mindful if something I take for granted is also equipped for others. “Crip Camp” helps, but it’s an active, lifelong practice to see others as people equal to yourself, something the Jim LeBrechts and Judy Heumanns of the world know better than most.