Review: Netflix documentary ‘Crip Camp’ is the feel-good story we desperately need

This image released by Netflix shows a scene from “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.” (Steve Honisgbaum/Netflix via AP)
WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Crip Camp'

“American Factory” just won the Oscar for Best Documentary by exploring a Chinese billionaire taking over an abandoned General Motors plant in post-industrial Ohio.

Now, the same studio brings you “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution,” which won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and is now streaming on Netflix.

The doc opens in 1971, as teenagers with disabilities visit Camp Jened in the Catskills of upstate New York, about 40 miles north of Woodstock. Not far removed from the hippie communes of the late ’60s, the free-spirited camp gives the teens social activities like sports, singing, friendship and even dating that they’ve been missing on the outside.

After teary-eyed goodbyes at the end of summer, the campers go back to their daily lives across the country. However, many reunite in Berkeley, California, to launch the Disability Rights Movement as vital unfinished business left over from the Civil Rights Movement.

The project began over lunch between Emmy-winning filmmaker Nicole Newnham (PBS’ “Independent Lens”) and her longtime sound designer Jim LeBrecht, who was born with spina bifida. He pitched a documentary about Camp Jened, which he attended at age 15.

Together, they went to work compiling a mix of black-and-white home videos from the camp and color news broadcasts chronicling the movement. Most shocking is footage of emaciated bodies at dilapidated institutions, recalling Frederick Wiseman’s hidden-camera “Titicut Follies” (1967) and Milos Forman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975).

“Crip Camp” takes its rightful place in the evolution of the issue, thanks to a thoughtful pace and warmly enveloping tone. Charting our path are insightful interviews with the key figures involved, using subtitles to show the intelligent minds behind the stunted speech.

The film’s two key figures are Larry Allison, who founded Camp Jened as an unsung hero of civil rights, and Judith Heumann, who tenaciously leads hunger strikes and marches with a mantra that “good enough” is never good enough. Her legal basis may be Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, but her guiding light is her own moral conviction.

The next time you see an accessible bathroom, wheelchair ramp or school bus elevator, you’ll stop and think of all the folks who fought so hard to achieve such accommodations for their basic human rights, drastically changing the world over the last 50 years.

Above all, the film shows the determination required to achieve equality, exposing the reluctance by both the Nixon and Carter administrations. It’s a bipartisan film we can all get behind, executive produced by President Barack Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, while hailing George H.W. Bush for signing the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

If you have any semblance of a soul, you will tear up watching the marchers climb out of their wheelchairs and crawl up the steps of the U.S. Capitol. “I don’t care if it takes me all day,” a courageous child shouts as he climbs one step at a time like a real-life “Rocky.”

Wipe away those tears — this is a feel-good story at a time we desperately need it.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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