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Tuesday, August 3, 2021

“Crip Camp” shows the power of community in activism

The Obamas’ latest documentary sheds light on an underrecognized civil right’s issue 

On March 25, Michelle and Barack Obama’s production company Higher Ground Productions released its latest documentary on Netflix. “Crip Camp” focuses on the foundations of the disabilities rights movement and a summer camp where many of its activists got their start. “Crip Camp” was co-directed by Jim Lebretch and Nicole Newnham.

The first half of the film follows the teenagers who attended Camp Jened, a summer camp for teenagers with disabilities in New York. The camp was established in 1951 and had a traditional camp structure, however, the influence of the following decades certainly shifted the camp’s reputation. 

“As it evolved in the ‘60s and the ‘70s, what we tried to do was provide a kind of environment where teenagers could be teenagers without all the stereotypes and labels,” explains Larry Allison, the director of the camp, in the film. 

It became known as a sort of “hippie” camp, where teens with disabilities could listen to music, play sports and even experiment with drugs. With minimal adult supervision, the campers and counselors all worked together to create a positive environment for everyone at the camp. 

“What we saw at that camp was that our lives could be better,” said Jim Lebretch, co-director of the documentary and former camper at Jened. “I had to try to adapt. I had to fit into this world that wasn’t built for me. It never dawned on me that the world was ever gonna change.”

The liberatory sensation of the camp led to a ripple effect of activism from the campers in the years to follow. The second half of the film depicts the impact of Jened’s positive environment that led to real-world change. 

Pioneer of the disabilities rights movement Judith Heumann attended the camp from age nine to 18. Unable to walk after having contracted polio, Heumann was told she could not attend her local public school because she would be a “fire hazard.” But she learned her worth after attending Jened so many years. 

Not only did Huemann found Disabled in Action, she was also on the front lines of many key battles in the fight for equality. She sued the New York Board of Education and won after being denied a teaching license due to her wheelchair, and she led a sit-in on Madison Avenue after President Nixon vetoed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The highlight of the film was the coverage of the 504 Sit-In of 1977. After failing to enforce the legislation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, Huemann and several other former campers occupied the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare offices across the country. 

The film depicts the strength and determination of the disabled community through these moments with grainy, first-hand footage of the demonstration. People sang and chanted to keep spirits up over their 23-day stay in the building. 

While it was especially difficult for those with disabilities to go so long without proper help or care, they remained until change was made. Huemann and the other campers were used to working alongside other people with disabilities from Camp Jened. The footage of a crowded room full of people in wheelchairs and canes helping one another survive is truly powerful. 

Though the building cut off the phones, the deaf community was able to sign through the windows to communicate with the outside world. The demonstrators received help from the local Black Panther chapter who provided hot dinners and food to sustain them everyday. And a lesbian bar owner washed people’s hair after the building’s water was turned off. 

As ‘70s funk music plays in the background, the viewer witnesses the selflessness of dozens of civil rights groups across the spectrum working to effect real change in the world. At its core, this is what the film is truly about. From Camp Jened to the frontlines of the disability rights movement, the campers learned how to work together, despite differences, to achieve a common goal. The film is empowering and brings humanity to those featured in it.

“With footage capturing profound mealtime discussions and playful asides alike, the movie not only proves the value of the camp but manages to turn its eager happy faces into a practical statement on the way inclusivity can stimulate future progress,” Eric Kohn writes in Indie Wire. “Notably, [the directors] restrict the story to the perspectives of their disabled subjects (Larry Allison, the valiant camp director, has been relegated to a supporting character throughout), so there’s never even the lingering possibility of devolving into a pity party. The movie doesn’t just celebrate Camp Jened; it hovers in the confines of its ethos.”

The documentary was met with positive reviews and a score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. It pays respect and honor to a civil rights movement that is often forgotten.

Written by: Alyssa Ilsley — arts@theaggie.org

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