Now Playing! ‘Crip Camp’ Recalls Coming of Age Through Activism

A scene at Camp Jened from 'Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.' (Steve Honigsbaum)

Jim LeBrecht was a life-of-the-party 15-year-old with spina bifida when he got off the bus at Camp Jened. The three-hour ride from his New York City home to the Catskills camp, then in its 20th year of catering specifically to children with disabilities, was fun and strange and, in ways he couldn’t imagine, the first step on a journey that coincided with a societal transformation.

LeBrecht’s winning personality and self-aware perspective enroll us immediately in Crip Camp, the disarming, infuriating and essential documentary co-directed by the longtime East Bay sound designer and local ace Nicole Newnham (The Rape of Europa). It’s the film we didn’t know we needed, filling a great gap in the history of the civil rights movement that I, at least, didn’t realize existed.

Directors Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht. (Sacha Maric)

Crip Camp opened the Sundance Film Festival in January, reconnecting the festival with its politically conscious roots, and premieres Wednesday, March 25 on Netflix. A celebratory community screening was planned for SFFILM in April, until the coronavirus forced the festival’s cancellation. You can still cheer and yell at the screen, albeit from the “comfort” of your own home. (You can also yell at the federal government, though you may want to open your window à la a certain Howard Beale.)

LeBrecht’s recounting of his various awakenings at hippie-happy Camp Jened in the summer of ’71—romantic and sexual, included—establishes Crip Camp at the outset as a coming-of-age story, with all the joy, awkwardness, gratifying nostalgia and life lessons one anticipates. It’s a smart strategy in a couple of ways: Through one man’s eyes, we view that period and, more importantly, what it was like to live and to be perceived as “disabled.” We’re in the room, not peering through a window, with people who are alive and irreverent and sensitive and horny and, well, people.

Another benefit of this approach is it allows Crip Camp to avoid earnestness, and the deadly air of a “message film.” Serious subjects are discussed—dependence and independence, the lack of privacy—but they are framed as personal issues, even if every camper deals with them on a daily basis back home.

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Crip Camp works wonderfully as a consciousness-raising saga for the first 20 minutes or so, but summer camp (like all good things) has to end. Jimmy LeBrecht returns to high school, goes to the Left Coast (well, San Diego) for college, discovers the Bay Area’s weirdness—a Camp Jened alumnus performs on the Mabuhay Gardens stage in an arresting piece of archival footage—and innovation (Berkeley’s Center for Independent Living gets a shout-out and more), and takes a job after graduation as Berkeley Rep’s resident sound designer.

Judy Heumann at a rally. (HolLynn D'Lil)

LeBrecht joined Disability in Action in the early ’70s and became an outspoken activist in college. But he humbly and wisely relinquishes the Crip Camp spotlight to disability advocates like Judy Heumann, a Camp Jened alum who spearheaded the occupation of HEW’s San Francisco office in 1977. Originally a simple protest aimed at pressuring newly appointed and exasperatingly lackadaisical Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califano to sign regulations expanding the rights of people with disabilities, it evolved into a major action that lasted more than three weeks.

The prime purpose of documentaries, for most people, is education. By that measure, Crip Camp scores early and often. How had I never heard of the HEW demonstration? Is there a plaque commemorating this milestone in Bay Area activism, or any other acknowledgement?

I was baffled by my ignorance of this event, and outraged at the indifference of federal officials to peaceful, reasonable demands. It’s possible that my fury was exacerbated by the current administration’s stonewalling on the coronavirus crisis, which is to say that a good historical documentary is never (just) about the past.

Crip Camp starts out as a summer frolic with an edge, but it expands into something far, far greater. It’s a major work that continues the long tradition of timeless Bay Area social-issue documentaries, and deserves a place on the shelf alongside, to cite just a few, The Times of Harvey Milk, Freedom on My Mind, The Weather Underground and Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin.