Disability is a fucking brilliant way to live.
Disability is love. Disability is radical. Disability is rage. Disability is sexy. Disability is revolutionary.
Is disability normal? Fuck normal.
The second film executive produced by President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama's Higher Ground, Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is an exhilarating work of wonder, a claiming of sacred space and self-identity and absolute worth and the right to be, just plain ole' fucking be, exactly as is in a world that too often treated and still treats folks with disabilities as the others of society.
Winner of the Audience Award for Documentary Feature at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Crip Camp is co-written and directed by longtime Hollywood sound man and former Crip Camper Jim Lebrecht and frequent collaborator and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Nicole Newnham and is set for a March 25th release with Netflix.
The film kicks off with Lebrecht himself as a child of the 50's, born with spina bifida and not expected to survive more than a few hours. It's obvious from these opening moments that Lebrecht will not only survive but thrive, his bouncy little boy spirit a reminder of my own childhood with spina bifida that started a few years later before our paths would eventually cross through social media and our own individual artistic pursuits.
While Lebrecht is featured throughout Crip Camp, Crip Camp is not about Lebrecht. Crip Camp, when it comes down to it, isn't really about Crip Camp, or at least it's not about the camp upon which Crip Camp is based - the former Camp Jened, a summer camp that existed down the road from Woodstock "for the handicapped run by hippies," according to Lebrecht.
The heart and soul of Crip Camp is about the healing power of an accepting community and the ways in which such a community can change the lives of those who belong. Camp Jened, and other camps like it, helped pave the way for the future of people with disabilities and this camp, in particular, featured some of those who would find themselves at the forefront of the disability rights movement including the Carter/Bush era push for the Americans with Disabilities Act that former President George H.W. Bush would eventually sign into law in 1990.
Crip Camp is a crowdpleasing film, but rest assured it's also a revolutionary one.
One of the key revolutionaries to come out of Camp Jened was former camp counselor turned internationally recognized disability rights activist Judith Heumann, whose recent book Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist is extraordinary. Heumann served as Special Advisor for International Disability Rights under former President Barack Obama and remains one of the nation's most visible faces on disability rights (though far from the only one). Heumann, along with people like Kitty Cone and Mary Jane Owen and other Jened alumni, were instrumental in the 26-day takeover of a federal building in 1977 that would become known as the 504 Sit-In, a key action on the way to the eventual passage of ADA that took far too long largely due to the political maneuvering of former President Jimmy Carter's political maneuvering that merely served to delay the inevitable. Carter, a one-term president embraced fondly now since he's about as old as Noah and keeps building Habitat houses, is deservedly seen in a negative light here that serves as a reminder of the myriad of reasons Carter never made it to a second term.
In Crip Camp, the revolution isn't particularly accessible but a passionate and fiercely dedicated group of about 50 disability rights activists would show up anyway and keep showing up and refusing to go until their voices were heard and changes were, over time, made.
The work is far from over, but Crip Camp is a solid reminder of where it all got started.
It may sound like Crip Camp gets heavy, and the film certainly does have its serious and revolutionary narrative threads, but Crip Camp is a spirited and emotionally resonant joy in which a Catskills-based summer camp came vibrantly to life and where you often couldn't tell counselors from campers and where it really didn't matter that awful much. The disabled teenagers featured in Crip Camp, often seen in archival video discovered from a video collective that had documented the camp in 1971, are hilariously and poignantly and awesomely alive in Crip Camp. This is an area right on the edge of IDEA and well before ADA, a time when people with disabilities were still most often found in institutions and when eugenics laws were still all the rage and equity of rights was non-existent. In an atmosphere of radical acceptance and wholehearted embrace, these teenagers were empowered to be their honest selves in an environment where inclusive games, soul-freeing music, and sexuality were embraced and understood as part of the human experience to be afforded to everyone.
In a world that so often fought to exclude them, Camp Jened embraced them.
In my own world, it was the late 70's experiences in Indiana's Camp Riley, a far more formal yet similarly spirited camp experience for teens with disabilities that gave me a glimpse into a world of independence and interdependence, a body that could be loved and nurtured and a disability that could be fully embraced even with all its quirks and needs and seemingly endless embarrassing moments. Camp Riley changed me as a teenager with a disability, letting me know and really understand that smart and intelligent and beautiful and downright sexy people could be comfortable with me exactly as I was.
I learned how to expect that for my life. And nothing less.
Crip Camp is bold and angry and passionate and loving and filled with a soundtrack that makes you remember love and peace and embrace and, in my own definition, tenderness. It's a film that educates and inspires, entertains and challenges. It's occasionally schmaltzy, but that schmaltz is empowering rather than some obnoxious Hallmark greeting card sentiment or, god forbid, inspiration porn. Rated R for some language and sexual references (Go sex!), Crip Camp features a stellar soundtrack along with original music by Emmy Award-winning composter Bear McCreary (Da Vinci's Demons, 10 Cloverfield Lane) and lensing by D.P. Justin Schein and his team that is bold and energized.
There isn't a false note in Crip Camp, a radical act of cinematic love and claiming of space that proclaims the beauty of disability and the wonder of the disabled life or, as Judith Heumann herself once stated, "Disability only becomes a tragedy for me when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives- job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example. It is not a tragedy to me that I’m living in a wheelchair."
Disabled people work and we play. We create and we learn. We love and we make love and we fuck just for the hell of it. We survive and we thrive. We hurt and we struggle. We dream of a better life and the opportunity to make it happen. We live. We live. We really, really live and for that we simply won't apologize.
The revolution? It's still not very accessible...but we're still here.
Crip Camp is available for viewing starting March 25th on Netflix.
Just watch it.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic