With a perfect 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, this documentary is exactly the kind of project you’d expect Barack and Michelle Obama to be behind. They are the executive producers of Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution under the banner of their Higher Ground Productions company, in partnership with Netflix.
The initial slate included scripted, unscripted and documentary projects in different stages of development and are set to be released over the next few years, according to Netflix.
The documentary American Factory, the first Higher Ground product, premiered at Sundance in 2019 and subsequently won the 2020 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. It would appear this is setting the bar for a stable of high impact, thought-provoking, and feel-good documentaries.
Crip Camp begins with raw vintage footage before cutting away to the present-day introduction to James Lebrecht – who directed the film. He was born with spina bifida and wasn’t expected to live beyond a few hours. The home movies of him speeding capably around as a toddler subtly point us towards the prejudices and judgements towards disabled people.
For today’s viewers, the language used back in the 1960s and 70s is downright appalling. And to see how these people – mentally and/or physically challenged, whether by birth defects or accidents – used to be treated is nothing short of heartbreaking. You’ll see a snippet of an horrific short documentary titled Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace – it’s difficult viewing, but it adds to Crip Camp’s mission to make us aware of how things used to be, and how they came to change.
Many of those at Jened in the early 70s went on to be activists for the disabled. Jened gave them the inspiration to demand their rights.
Present-day Jim tells us how he had to fit into a world that wasn’t designed for him. Spending summers at Camp Jened changed his life, and the lives of many other disabled people – or crips, as they called themselves back in the 1970s.
Jened was run by a bunch of post-Woodstock hippies at that time, and had been around since the 1950s. It was a place everyone could feel normal, be heard, and fit in. And make out. A lot. Jim, aged 15, laments not being with his first girlfriend on their one-week anniversary on account of an outbreak of crabs in the camp.
At 40 minutes in, a vintage television voiceover begins: “Most animal species abandon or destroy members of the group that are maimed or deformed. Some human societies have been equally harsh. Down through the centuries, our literature, and movies, are full of monstrous and misunderstood creatures. Through this conditioning we come to think of the handicapped as objects of fear or loathing. Tonight we look at them as human beings, with problems.”
This is where the whole story is going; many of those at Jened in the early 70s went on to be activists for the disabled. Jened gave them the inspiration to demand their rights.
It wasn’t easy. Nothing was easy for those in wheelchairs. There were no ramps. Stairs everywhere. Not being seen or heard beyond that chair, the ability to be functioning parts of society ignored.
“Their fight to secure basic rights for disabled people in the United States included the 28-day sit-in at the office of health, education, and welfare in San Francisco in 1977 – the longest non-violent occupation of a federal building – to demand enforcement of the law which required all new construction paid for with federal dollars to be handicap accessible; a shutdown of Madison Avenue and marches on Washington under-covered then and now, demanding visibility for disabled Americans and the right to participate fully in American society,” writes Adrian Horton of The Guardian in his review, the headline screaming “It blew my mind”.
Crip Camp is emotionally uplifting, and a tribute to those who sacrificed so much to improve their world. It’s precisely what we need to watch right now.