Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (2020): Enlightening and Informative Oscar-Nominated Docu

Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht directed, written and co-produced Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, an enlightening documentary that reveals new information about disability, and the fight for equality, without ever becoming a preachy civic lesson or an after-school special.

Crip Camp is now nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar.

Crip Camp
Crip Camp poster.jpg

Official release poster

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

Raising global awareness and visibility, while always remaining true to its nature, Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is an uplifting documentary directed, written and co-produced by Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht.  Barack and Michelle Obama served as executive producers under their Higher Ground Productions banner.

World-premiering at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award, the critically acclaimed documentary was released by Netflix and is now one of the five nominees for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar.

The feature’s title is justified, as Crisp Camp is about a revolution, in theory and in practice, one marked by the expected righteous anger, while never forgetting the ultimate goal of reaching out and executing real changes.

The direct, confrontational title and the Obamas branding should not scare or put off viewers away from a story that is truly non-partisan in its human significance.

It is an impactful film that shines a light on a forgotten fight for equality. Starring Larry Allison, Judith Heumann, James LeBrecht, Denise Sherer Jacobson, and Stephen Hofmann, the film focuses on those campers who turned themselves into activists for the disability rights movement and follows their fight for accessibility legislation, which over the past two decades has gained momentum all over the world.

'Crip Camp'
Courtesy of Sundance
‘Crip Camp’

The idea to make the film about Camp Jened began with an off-hand comment at lunch. LeBrecht had been working with Nicole Newnham for 15 years as a co-director. LeBrecht was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair to get around. However, he had never seen a documentary related to what he describes as his “life’s work as a disability rights advocate”.

At the end of the lunch meeting, LeBrecht told Newnham, “You know, I’ve always wanted to see this film made about my summer camp.” “Oh, that’s nice,” she said, “but why?” After explaining the reasons for wanting to make a film, Newnham felt that he completely blew my mind.”

The tale starts in 1971 at Camp Jened, a summer camp in New York described as a “loose, free-spirited camp designed for teens with disabilities.”

Trough Jim’s personal story, the feature aimed “to bring people into the world of Camp Jened, to give them that immersive experience themselves. Specific events were crucial, such as arriving at camp, checking out the scene, feeling a little bit (or more) uncomfortable, not sure what’s going on, not sure if they speak the language.”

Then, over time, “to make them feel like this is a world that is fun and joyous and liberating for them as viewers, just like it was for Jim.”

Crip Camp starts out as a movie about a particular time and place. But then it becomes a chronicle of a whole movement, a movement sparked by the young people whose lives were changed by their experience in that place.

Within the frame of 107 minutes, the filmmakers compile and cram as much information as they can. Admittedly, Lebrecht and Newnham have a lot of ground to cover, because there’s a history of how people with disabilities have been (mis)treated in the U.S. and the movement faced many obstacles before it eventually led to the 1990 passage of the “Americans With Disabilities Act.”

In the process, Crip Camp details some of the shameful realities in a way that’s both revelatory and simple to comprehend, because it’s grounded in the experiences of ordinary individuals.

The film’s soundtrack plays like a “who’s who” of the 1970s protest music scene, featuring songs by Richie Havens, the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and others.

Despite its serious intent, it’s often funny, especially in the archival footage, some of which was shot at Camp Jened by the radical filmmaking group, the People’s Video Thetaer.

It’s rare to see a documentary that’s both informative and entertaining in both senses of these terms. Viewers born into a post-ADA world, one defined by self-opening doors, accessible bathroom stalls, and ramps for wheelchairs, will realize that the current status of affairs is a product of a decades-long struggle for civil rights, one that has received less attention by the media and policy-makers than other struggles for equity.

As entertaining as it is inspiring, Crip Camp is an indispensable documentary with a blunt message, using one group’s remarkable story to highlight hope for the future and to demonstrate the power of community.