Hailing from directors Nicole Newnham and James Lebrecht, the Netflix documentary “Crip Camp: A Disability Revoution” begins by chronicling the exploits that occurred at Camp Jened, a camp exclusively for disabled people, in the late 1960s. LeBrecht, an attendee of the camp in the 1960s, serves as the primary guide through this location as he explains through narration how special this place was to its participants. So many people who were infantilized or outright ignored at home got the chance to be treated as who they actually were: people. Through footage filmed at the camp half-a-century ago, we see the attendees playing baseball, singing together and even bragging about their sexual escapades.
The stories about this camp (which are also recounted by former counselors and other attendees) prove to be extremely enjoyable. There's clearly already enough material just in wistfully remembering glorious days at Camp Jened to fill up a whole movie. But “Crip Camp” doesn't stop its story here. On the contrary, the location is just the springboard for a much larger story. Eventually, the campers and counselors at Camp Jened grow up. Into the 1970s, revolution is stirring. The sense of humanity and compassion felt between the likes of campers LeBrecht or counselors Judith Heumann won't be confined to just a singular camp. They're going to start a revolution for the rights of disabled people across America.
That's one of the most ingenious ways “Crip Camp” is structured. What already seems like a touching documentary about an exceptional summer camp eventually morphs into a saga about the powers of unification and the essentiality of compassion. In a way, “Crip Camp's” way of telling its story reminded me of the "Asgard is not a place, it's a people" line from “Thor: Ragnarok”. Just like Asgard, Camp Jened is not defined by where it is on a map but by the people who were shaped by their experiences there. An ending sequence where the campers return to the now desolate land the camp once stood reinforces this. The camp may be gone but the influence it had on people will live on for generations.
Such influence comes in the form of instilling hope in its campers that America can vastly improve the shoddy way it treats its disabled citizens. Led by Heumann, “Crip Camp” spends much of its runtime showing the prolonged struggles disabled activists faced in trying to get legislation passed that would aid disabled citizens. In showcasing these events, the structure of “Crip Camp” once again proves to be remarkable. Directors Newnham and Lebrecht don't just breeze past the events. In real life, such protests spanned over multiple presidential administrations, all in the name of fighting for basic civil liberties. A documentary chronicling such efforts should take the time to dive in-depth into these matters and “Crip Camp,” thankfully, opts for that approach.
Allowing time to explore these protests in such an in-depth fashion allows viewers a chance to learn of plenty of engrossing anecdotes related to these activism crusades. The best of such stories has got to be one connected to an extended sit-in, led by Heumann, in order to capture the attention of Jimmy Carter's presidential administration. This already stirring tale takes an exceedingly heartfelt turn when it's noted that the activists received shampoo from nearby lesbians as well as food from members of the Black Panther Party. That same sense of unity that united disabled campers in Camp Jened is now bringing different marginalized communities together to stand up against corrupt government forces. How could that not touch your heart?
Another positive side-effect of how “Crip Camp” delves deeply into this era of activism is that audiences get to know the individual members of these movements through extensive interview segments. There's a welcome level of variety in the types of disabled figures interviewed for this portion of “Crip Camp” as well as throughout its entire run time. Its a quality of the production that “Crip Camp” never pauses to comment on but in emphasizing a variety of disabled perspectives, this documentary reminds viewers of an important truth. Society puts all people with the same types of physical and/or mental disabilities into a single box. In truth, members of these communities are like snowflakes in that no two are exactly the same. Through subtly emphasizing this level of variety, “Crip Camp,” much like the 1970s protesters it chronicles, has a vibrant sense of humanity to it. At once so singular yet so universally appealing, viewers definitely need to take a trip to “Crip Camp.”