In the impactful new Netflix documentary Crip Camp, we’re told a story so remarkable that it seems as if we should already know it or at least have a vague awareness of its existence. It starts with something small, a camp in upstate New York for those with disabilities, and ends with something big, an impassioned civil rights movement that led to vital systemic change. Like many of the best documentaries, more and more of which have been cropping up on Netflix, it educates us on an underrepresented minority, adding nuance and specificity to an experience that might have previously been painted in broad strokes, the kind of film that shouldn’t just be recommended viewing but also required.
Premiering to great acclaim earlier this year at Sundance, after securing the Obamas as executive producers, Crip Camp is in itself the small film that became something big, now reaching millions of, quite literally given the pandemic, captive viewers. It starts in 1971 in the Catskills at Camp Jened, a loose, free-spirited camp designed for teens with disabilities. It was a utopia for kids who felt alienated and sidelined, a rare haven devoid of judgment and discrimination, an eye-opening experience for so many who’d felt shut out for so long. The teens who’d previously been rejected were suddenly accepted, moving from high school classes in the basement out into the light.
Directors Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht immerse us at Jened through an invaluable amount of vintage footage as well as interviews with surviving participants. The freewheeling vibe of the camp, likened to Woodstock, is matched by a similarly unstructured first act which sits us with the teens as they play, smoke, flirt and, most interestingly, discuss key issues with each other. For so many of them, this was their first opportunity to speak about the intricacies of their experience, which admittedly were different given their range of disabilities, but there’s a thrill in watching them bond, especially in one illuminating scene where they lament the lack of alone time they’re allowed, protective parents never far away.
But the camp is only the beginning and once the teens leave after the summer of 71, the film moves on to what life looked like and how that formative experience left an indelible impression. It was no longer acceptable to live in the background, to accept status as second-class citizens, and so many of them used this newfound, or newly awakened, energy to demand political change. The inarguable breakout star of the film is Judy Heumann, who was a counsellor at the camp and went on to lead the movement, fearlessly confronting a system that was intimidatingly stacked against her. She’s a captivating central figure, persuasively, passionately petitioning for equity and in one of the film’s most powerful moments, when certain legislation is passed, she poignantly refuses to be grateful for the basic right of an accessible bathroom.
It’s a film that takes small, incremental leaps until we’re finally made aware of the bigger picture, of the brave strides made by people who met at a camp and realised that what they were being offered in their lives wasn’t good enough. It’s rousing stuff, especially when we see how Black Panthers and LGBTQ+ activists at the time rallied alongside, aware that their individual fights were ultimately not that different, and it’s one that’s similarly not over. The shameful lack of wheelchair access within New York’s subway system, which the film traces back to callous decision-making in the 70s, remains a major problem while disability groups have filed a complaint about Covid-19-based discrimination just this week.
There’s understandable anger here but also humour and insight, Newnham and LeBrecht allowing those in the film to be seen as sexual, ambitious, funny, interesting individuals, more than what society has too often allowed. It’s as involving as it is necessary, a rare ray of sunshine on yet another cloudy day.
Crip Camp is available on Netflix from 25 March