What’s more all-American than baseball, apple pie, and summer camp? For children born with disabilities in the middle of the last century, at least two of those things were an impossible dream — until places like Camp Jened.
Directors Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht’s eye-opening documentary Crip Camp, the winner of an Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is at least in part about Jened and the kids who found a home there from the ’50s through the late ’70s. But it’s also the galvanizing tale of a national movement sparked in part by former campers to bring disabled rights into the mainstream.
And like most good storytelling, it takes care to make the political personal, largely by focusing on just a few of Jened’s most charismatic alumni. People like Lebrecht himself, a Grateful Dead fan and inveterate flirt born with spina bifida who confesses in the movie’s opening scenes: “I loved music, I loved life. I wanted to be part of the world, but I didn’t see anyone like me in it.”
The place they came to call Crip Camp was the answer to that: an idyllic parcel of land in upstate New York that welcomed kids from all over the Eastern Seaboard and beyond, and staffed it with sympathetic counselors both able-bodied and not.
They did, in fact, play baseball at Jened — albeit a shambolic version that made various allowances for piggybacking and wheelchairs — and engage in all kinds of other classic camp activities too: song circles, make-out sessions, arguments over lasagna. In other words, they got to be teenagers.
These scenes are charmingly evocative, aided by what seems like a treasure trove of archival footage. But the story’s focus soon shifts to the activism its alumni became involved in after many of them moved across the country to the Bay Area, where the nascent battle for equal rights was finding its center.
That's where the main star of the movie, if there can be said to be one, really comes to the fore: a polio survivor named Judith Heumann. With her oversize Tootsie glasses and outer-borough accent, she hardly seems intimidating, but she turns out to be a sort of Norma Rae on wheels — pushing reticent lawmakers, organizing sit-ins, and refusing to back down when both the Nixon and Carter administrations attempted to fob off the responsibility of something as simple as access to schools and public transportation.
Camp, like last year's American Factory, is a Netflix project with the not-inconsiderable heft of executive producers Barack and Michelle Obama behind it, which will undoubtedly earn it some extra attention. That's great if it helps the film, though it's clear who the real heroes are here: a group of kids that society consistently marginalized, mistreated, and ignored, until they fought their own way off of the sidelines and into the world. A–
Crip Camp is now streaming on Netflix.