• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:April 19, 2021

Crip Camp: Revolutionary Ground


People don’t really seem to like watching movies about or starring the disabled. They are rarely featured in Hollywood films and there aren’t many documentaries attempting to tell their stories. The filmmakers behind Crip Camp knew that their project would be challenging. Directors James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham talked about how to sell the movie, imagining Crip Camp as ”The Breakfast Club meets The Times of Harvey Milk”. Turns out though there were powerful backers waiting for them. Former President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle had recently launched a production company and made a deal with Netflix. They were looking for projects to take under their wing. In their eyes, Crip Camp had something fresh to tell the world. 

A place of freedom
The story actually begins with Lebrecht himself. He was born with a defect in the spinal cord, which has made the use of a wheelchair necessary through his life. When he was 14 in the early 1970s, he started attending Camp Jened in New York, a place where he got to know many other teens with disabilities. This was a place of freedom for them, an escape from a society that refused to help or adapt in any way to their needs. The camp was a place where you fell in love and experienced the same sexual feelings as any other teenager, but it was also a place where the teens made important connections and shared experiences of how parents and other people treated them. It was the beginning of a revolution, naturally following the civil rights movement; if Blacks and women achieved progress by fighting for their rights, then the disabled should do the same.

The real breakthrough would not come until 1990, when President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, mandating disability access in all buildings, but there was a real battle unfolding already in the 1970s. Led by Judith Heumann, disability rights activists staged sit-ins and protests, fighting three presidential administrations and eventually forcing Secretary of Health Joseph Califano to sign regulations for an all-important part of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act that guaranteed rights for people with disabilities.

A perfect gateway into a bigger story
Heumann, who came to serve in both Obama’s and Bill Clinton’s administrations, had attended Camp Jened, just like Lebrecht. After a thorough search, the directors found footage from the camp and were blown away – there was so much of it and the people who appeared in it were vividly real. Lebrecht and Newnham realized that the material would be a perfect gateway into a bigger story about how the camp inspired people to fight in the remarkable struggle later that decade. The black-and-white footage from the camp is wonderful to see, but the archive material from the subsequent protests is also awe-inspiring, all these frail bodies and stubborn minds being used to achieve the impossible; there are moments captured by cameras when Heumann stands out as a civil-rights leader equal to none.

There’s so much joy at the camp (rowdy, music-loving, horny teenagers) and in interviews with some of the participants who are now much older; there are tears when they reunite at the site where the camp used to be.

But there are also moments when we in the audience should feel anger and shame at what we’re seeing, especially when we hear about Willowbrook, the old New York hospital for children with intellectual disabilities, where conditions were so bad that it started to resemble a concentration camp before it was permanently closed. In other words, watching Crip Camp is an emotional experience.

Crip Camp 2020-U.S. 108 min. Color-B/W. Produced by Sara Bolder, James Lebrecht, Nicole Newnham. Written and directed by James Lebrecht, Nicole Newnham.

Trivia: First shown at the Sundance film festival, then released on Netflix. Co-executive produced by the Obamas.

Last word: “Corbett O’Toole, who’s this extraordinary activist who’s in the film and a friend of Jim’s [Lebrecht], said [during her interview], ‘This is really nice. It was really nice to be interviewed by a director who had a disability who wasn’t going to ask her to put her shoes on and get out of bed on camera.’ A little bit othering that often goes on when we non-disabled people try to show or present people with disabilities and how they live. That was what was so wonderful about working with Jim is that that’s not the way you’re looking at the world.” (Newnham, Moveable Fest)



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