Sundance Review: CRIP CAMP Puts Armchair Activism To Shame

Need a new hero? This movie’s got you.

The Americans With Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990.

When you think about that in terms of civil rights, what it really means is that Americans with disabilities didn’t have equal rights and protections under the law until just THIRTY years ago. But if you’re like me, you probably don’t think about it in these terms… because, if we’re being honest, most of us don’t think about this kind of thing at all. I’ve taken handicap accessibility for granted my entire life, occasionally reflecting on how great it is that America enforces handicap accessibility through things like building codes. It’s simply never occurred to me before that the fight to obtaining equal rights for the disabled might be one of our most heroic untold stories of grassroots activism.

Crip Camp is a stunning documentary world-premiering at Sundance, headed soon to a Netflix subscription near you, produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, and directed by James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham. Told through the eyes of LeBrecht himself, we’re transported back to Camp Jened in the early 1970s, where a bunch of hippies created a loving and inclusive summer camp environment that allowed James and a number of other (remarkable) handicapped individuals to cut loose, find dignity and inspiration through shared community, and also furiously make out with one another… as all teenagers at summer camps want to do.

For some reason, there was a film crew at this camp which captured incredible documentary footage and interviews. They even got good sound! As an audience we’re privy to some beautiful conversations where teenagers with disabilities were given time and space to speak as their ability allowed, and be truly heard. While the early 1970s free love disability summer camp vibe is quite enjoyable, this alone wouldn’t be enough for a compelling feature length documentary. But don’t worry… these kids are going places. And several of them may just be some of 2020’s greatest cinematic heroes as this film introduces them to the mainstream.

Crip Camp is a fantastic documentary in virtually every way imaginable. There was a wealth of footage, spanning decades, to help convey the story. It has a great cast of highly compelling characters whose disabilities are refreshingly normalized. There’s a rebellious and rowdy streak weaving through the film borne out of the civil rights era (and, like, The Grateful Dead). It’s timely and evocative. But perhaps most importantly of all: it tells an urgent story that most of the world simply doesn’t know.

Remarkably, a number of these brazenly horny and extremely charming teenage summer campers go on to lead the political movement to make discrimination against the handicapped illegal. And this is a fight so powerful and dramatic, Crip Camp simply left me a blubbering and shuddering mess.

From leading camp meetings to organizing the preparation of a lasagna dinner to testifying before congress as the face of this political campaign, Judith Heumann becomes an instant hero to those previously unfamiliar with her, which is probably most of us. The film brilliantly depicts two different protests that make for great cinema. In the early 1980s, Heumann, among others, staged a sit-in of a government office which stretched well over twenty days and which forced the government to begin enforcing the first ever federal protections for those with disabilities. These heroes, who have physical needs beyond what many of us can fathom, braved a sit-in and even a hunger strike and shook the politicians in Washington, DC.

Then there’s a harrowing sequence in the late 1980s when Judith and a number of other organizers (many former campers) successfully push for the creation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. I don’t know that I’ll ever forget the potent visual of seeing dozens of handicapped folks scaling the steps of the United States Capitol, some crawling, some crying, some dragging their chairs behind them… all showing us a powerful symbol and a profound courage that armchair activists could never achieve. They put their bodies on the line, and they changed the world.

Crip Camp gives us new heroes and reminds us that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. This is a film that will ensure you’ll never again take for granted the hard-won handicap accessibility that’s built into the infrastructure of our modern cities. The Camp Jened campers remind us, too, that every new milestone gained for full inclusion is hard-fought and requires constant vigilance until all truly are equal.