movie review

Netflix’s Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution Is a Transcendent Celebration of Activist Culture

It’s a shame this movie can’t be seen with a large, boisterous audience. It’ll make you want to dance and light up a joint. Photo: Patti Smolian/Netflix

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is an inspirational civil rights documentary that sounds as if it’s going to be Good for You rather than good, but it actually turns out to be both — as well as surprising, which is surprising in itself, given that inspirational civil rights documentaries tend to be more alike than unalike. From the outset, Crip Camp cuts through any anti-boomer cynicism you might have. It begins in 1971 in a Catskills summer camp, where in period footage we observe the elation of teen and 20-something “cripples” (a word still used in 1971) who’ve never before had the freedom to shed their defenses. They howl, they play pranks, they “rap” (i.e., they have “rap sessions”), and they are even known to snog. They seem excited when the camp is infested with gonorrhea because that means two people somewhere were bumping private parts, which is what so-called normal teens were doing in those heady times. Their beautiful feelings of acceptance and connection lay the foundation for the grueling struggle to come. Why can’t the “real” world be this accessible to them? Alas, to the real world, they barely exist.

The occasional narrator and co-director (with Nicole Newnham) is Jim LeBrecht, who was born with spina bifida but decided early in life to hurl himself at every challenge. He went to Crip Camp — its name is actually Camp Jened, located near Woodstock, New York — and is seen in ’71 footage exulting over his first girlfriend, but the film doesn’t center on him. That footage (shot by a collective called the People’s Video Theater) features myriad campers and counselors, then and now. Some were diagnosed with polio, some spina bifida, some cerebral palsy. Some are blind and/or deaf. Some enunciate clearly, others struggle to be understood. Everyone at Jened seems to be in clover — a word I employ because the film sets the mood with Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover.” The Grateful Dead are all over the soundtrack too, alive once more in the scraggly hair, beards, and tie-dyed clothes.

It’s a shame that this Netflix movie can’t be seen with a large, boisterous audience (once we’re virus-free, I mean), because the first third makes you want to dance and light up a joint. The brilliant, potty-mouthed author Denise Sherer Jacobson (who details the loss of her virginity and her subsequent graduate work in human sexuality) would rock any audience lucky enough to be in her presence, and her husband, Neil, is nearly as much of a hoot. They met at Jened and joked it wouldn’t take — he had childhood polio, she had cerebral palsy — but now seem happily in sync. Deadhead Al Levy looks and sounds like the shaggy brainiacs who changed my life in college. A handful of campers like Steve Hofmann are followed throughout the film, spotlighted in crowd scenes and demonstrations.

The movie’s most commanding presence — the catalyst for its main action — is Judy Heumann, who developed polio at 18 months and has spent most of her life in a wheelchair. Heumann evidently hit the ground rolling. (She would let me have that joke, I know she would.) She’s the first person in the film to address the open sore that was Staten Island’s Willowbrook, where the disabled were starved and neglected and which is shown in a ’70s exposé anchored by Geraldo Rivera, who appears to have once had his uses. When Crip Camp leaves Jened at the 40-minute mark, it follows Heumann and several other campers to San Francisco, the site of the seminal disability rights demonstration for Section 504 of the Civil Rights Act. The ’70s press is heard referring to it as “an occupying army of cripples,” but there’s nothing crippled about the people we see who shut down the HEW (the former Department of Health, Education and Welfare) offices for weeks.

No, that’s not strictly true — that’s my empowerment-speak. In truth, they have crushing obstacles, which is why the later sight of them setting aside their wheelchairs and hauling themselves up the steps of the nation’s capital is so jaw-dropping. They weren’t beaten or shot at like demonstrators at Selma, but they came from a different place. The Earth wasn’t solid beneath them. Self-expression was unprecedented: Merely getting to the point where they could make themselves seen and understood required a psychological revolution. The most wrenching scene might well be early, at Camp Jened, when a young woman named Nancy expresses her thoughts in a group discussion and the sounds that come out of her mouth — with great urgency — don’t resemble words to the helpless interviewer, who turns to the others for a translation. One speaks up: Steve Hofmann, who’s on Nancy’s wavelength and explains that she’s frustrated by the lack of privacy — which isn’t at all what I expected, which is the point. No one has known what she’s thinking because no one has listened closely enough. Some still aren’t.

Crip Camp is the second film to go out under the aegis of Barack and Michelle Obama as part of their Higher Ground series with Netflix. Their first, the Oscar-winning American Factory (which they played no role in developing), was dramatically more tangled. The difficulty of forming a union was central, but so was the disconnect between American and Chinese cultures, with Americans not always coming out on top. No one came out on top, because the point was finally that automation would eventually render humans superfluous — the logical end point of corporate capitalism.

Crip Camp has a more conventional trajectory, but it still goes to an unexpected place. Unions throw in their lot with demonstrators, along with the Black Panthers and a local lesbian bar, but the enemy of 504 isn’t Nixon or Reagan (although neither comes off well) but HEW secretary under Jimmy Carter Joseph Califano, who was at Lyndon Johnson’s side in the creation of the ’60s Great Society.

Simply, Califano appears to lose his nerve in the face of intense lobbying by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (which, by the way, would like y’all not to shelter in place from the coronavirus much longer) and in the face of demonstrations led by Heumann and others takes the coward’s path and hides away. In a memorable scene, a man named Eidenberg, who travels to San Francisco as Califano’s emissary, says his piece to the occupiers and then hightails it out of there into another room, locking the door behind him. It’s U.S. representative from California Phillip Burton, who goes after Eidenberg and drags him back — definitely a roof-raising moment if you were to see this in a theater. Califano’s eventual embrace of 504 is the result of an irony that’s both exhilarating and queasy-making: A dogged reporter for the San Francisco ABC affiliate named Evan White got his stories about the local demonstration on national air only because of a TV technician strike that left the scabs at the network short of material.

The uncomfortable truth that Newnham and LeBrecht don’t dwell on (although I’m sure they were tempted!) is that the neolibs threw almost as many monkey wrenches into the disability-rights machine than big-business conservatives. Crip Camp is a useful reminder that while Jimmy Carter might be our greatest ex-president, he was a miserable prick toward the end of his term. It was Ted Kennedy who carried the ball forward — as he would when the even more firmly neoliberal Clinton administration moved into the executive branch.

I know, I seem to have moved beyond the movie’s central characters, but that’s what’s so terrific about Crip Camp: It transcends its immediate subject and becomes an embrace of those counterculture ideals that we’ve allowed ourselves (with the help of propaganda from the other side) to become jaded about. The movie is both a profile of people who declared they would be no longer invisible and a celebration of the activist culture that supported and sustained them. In the final scenes, the surviving campers return to the site of Jened — bulldozed flat, with bulldozers still in evidence — and speak of kissing this hallowed ground. I didn’t laugh. I doubt you will either. Crip Camp lives inside them and will now live in us.

Crip Camp Is a Transcendent Celebration of Activist Culture