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The Lookout | April 18, 2021

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Review: ‘Crip Camp’ tells human story

Review: ‘Crip Camp’ tells human story
  • On April 27, 2020

Five stars out of five

By Robin Morales
Associate Editor

“Crip Camp” is a monumental documentary about a summer camp called Jened, the “crippled” teenagers and young adults who became a family there, and the civil rights revolution they started.

Released March 25 and distributed on Netflix through Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions Company (which previously produced the Academy Award-winning “American Factory”), the film looks at the history of the disability rights movement in all its pain, complexity and beauty.

The film begins in 1971, when co-director James LeBrech was 15 years old. He spent that summer in the Catskill Mountains at Camp Jened, a camp for disabled individuals. He describes the camp as the place where he finally belonged. He describes the camp as a place of inclusion and love where he wasn’t embarrassed about his spina bifida.

Camp vignettes are told through black-and-white archival footage, which masterfully convey the vulnerability of campers and counselors as they share their stories of exclusion, loneliness, institutionalization and discrimination with one another.

The rawness of these scenes is a bold and intimate portrayal of youth, and one of the most notable cinematic accomplishments of “Crip Camp.”

The second half of the film continues in 1973 and follows a group of former Jened campers and counselors who became social activists. Their leader was Judith “Judy” Heumann, the founder of Disabled in Action, and one of the most visible figures of the disability rights movement in the United States.

Concisely edited and meticulously crafted, the film takes viewers through the journey of the movement: highlighting the establishment of the Center for Independent Living in Berkley, the 504-sitdown strike in San Francisco, and the “Capitol Crawl,” culminating in the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

By juxtaposing the historic past with the reflections of activists in the present, the film is able to carefully balance its social commentary and personalization of its subjects. “Crip Camp” is filled with snippets of humor, perseverance and nostalgia.

“Crip Camp” is a rare film of social magnitude that forces the viewer to reevaluate how they regard other people, especially those they might not easily understand. It reminds us America still has a long way to go in the fulfillment of human dignity.