The title alone—“crip” is of course short for “cripples,” the latter not an acceptable adjective these days, though it is used here by the 1970s media to describe “an occupation army of cripples”—suggests that viewing this Oscar-nominated documentary will be a challenging experience: challenging for one’s sensibilities, one’s emotions, and one’s preconceptions of what it means to be disabled. Director James Lebrecht’s (also a camp alumnus) film will have an edge to it.
The challenge begins immediately. We’re dropped into Camp Jened (“a camp for the handicapped, run by hippies”) in the Catskills in 1971, where the People’s Video Theater is filming the disabled teenage campers, their counselors (some disabled, some not), and the camp’s “far-out” director, Larry Allison.
The remarkable black-and-white footage, discovered only a few years ago, is essential to the film’s strength and argument, but it is also—at first—shocking, saddening, even horrific in revealing the disabilities these teens suffer. Lebrecht, a presence throughout, was born with spina bifida and drags his body around with his hands and arms. Others have had polio or have cerebral palsy (“CP”) or mental handicaps. One young woman (Nancy Rosenbloom) bravely participates in a group discussion of parental “over-protectiveness,” speaking passionately for what seems an eternity; “did anyone get any of that?” a counselor asks afterwards. Apparently no one did.
It’s apparent early on that Crip Camp is a space of freedom, acceptance, bonding, humor, raucous joy—even sex.
You’re ready to feel sorry—really sorry—for these kids, but that’s not the point. It’s apparent early on that Crip Camp is a space of freedom, acceptance, bonding, humor, raucous joy—even sex. Lebrecht and Nanci D’Angelo will couple up. Another camper reveals with enthusiasm that a counselor (they’re “not like babysitters”) taught him to kiss. They play baseball and collectively decide they could do better for dinner than lasagna. They get crabs, and have fun with it. They revel in a newly discovered subjectivity, relieved at being among people who do not see them as objects of pity or even simply as objects. When summer comes to a close and the campers return to their homes, one recalls, “we were brothers and sisters.” The camp is an awakening for these teens, and “Crip Camp” succeeds in taking us with them on their path to self-knowledge.
Watching that first third of the film is an emotional experience, to be sure. But it’s also essential preparation for what’s to come. It makes the viewer complicit with these camp alumni in their participation in a two-decade campaign and political movement to secure the legislation and regulations that will help the disabled live lives of dignity and purpose. (The subtitle of the film is “A Disability Revolution”). Taking inspiration from the civil rights movement, they hold rallies and, in 1977, undertake a weeks-long sit-in that succeeds in convincing a reluctant HEW Secretary Joseph Califano to sign the all-important “504” regulations into law.
After a few years of new curbs and ramps and remodeling of federal buildings, the movement’s leader, Judith Huemann, comments: “I’m tired of being grateful for an accessible bathroom.” The broader Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which covers transportation, public accommodations and private businesses, was signed into law in 1990, again as a result of pressure from the disabled community. Because the documentary has no narrator, it can be difficult to construct a coherent legislative history—a minor irritation.
Several compelling scenes justify the length and centrality of the political segment: Jened alums performing at a sexualized costume party in Berkeley in 1974; the Black Panthers feeding disabled protestors during the 1977 sit-in; a then-liberal Geraldo Rivera exposing horrific conditions among the institutionalized disabled at Willowbrook in 1972; a man pulling his wheelchair up a long flight of stairs.
The editing of the film (also nominated for several awards and led by Lebrecht, who is a film sound editor) expertly ties the political to the personal and provides continuity between the two. Interviews with now-adult campers are riveting and present an arc to their lives; we watch them from their teens to full adulthood and for some, death. The “CP” couple and camp alumni Denise Sherer and Neil Jacobson revel in their marriage and parenthood. Denise also describes how, determined not to die a virgin, she had an affair with the driver of a bus transporting the disabled. She laughs as she explains the disabled hierarchy: those with polio are at the top (“because they look normal”), CPs at the bottom. Neil’s parents understood his marrying someone handicapped, but asked, “why not a polio?”
Eschewing voice-over narration and employing only a few newsclips from the era, the film uses the voices of the disabled to make a credible argument that the Crip Camp experience was critical to the political movement that emerged in the early 1970s. Heumann—a forceful, effective, articulate leader in the camp as well as in the protests that followed—links the two stories, as do several other former campers who appear in both segments. It’s clear that the Jened experience gave some campers the self-confidence required to launch, manage, and sustain a social and political movement, even if there were other people, non-camp alumni, involved.
The filmmakers reinforce the Jened/political action connection by returning to the grounds of the camp (which closed in 1977) for a nostalgic tour with a few alumni. It seems likely that the political gains of the 1970s and 1980s would have been secured even had Crip Camp never existed. But it’s a good story—one that has a kernel of truth, if not more—and it’s a story that makes for a powerful and intensely personal film.
Director: James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham
Starring: James Lebrecht, Denise Scherer Jacobson, Neil Jacobson, Judith Heumann, Nanci D’Angelo, Nancy Rosenbloom, Larry Allison, Joseph Califano: all as themselves and in archival footage
Oscar Nominations: Best Documentary Feature
Other Awards: 8 wins (including Sundance Audience Award for Best Documentary and International Documentary Association for Best Feature) and 34 other nominations
Crip Camp ★★★★ (out of 4 stars)
Runtime: 106 minutes
Availability: Streaming on Netflix only; see JustWatch here for future expanded availability.