Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution

At the Movies Blog

Camp Jened had caring counselors, some even with disabilities.

I forgot to write a review for this documentary after I saw it last month, but when another “camp” documentary was coming out this weekend, I remembered. Now, you hear the title “Crip Camp” and it’s misleading. Now, it’s not about the Crips gang. And no, it’s not all about Camp Jened, which was really just the first part of this documentary.

Camp Jened was in upstate New York near the Catskills. It opened in the ‘50s, and closed in the mid-70s. This is narrated by Jim LeBrecht, who attended the camp and co-directed. He and a few of his alum met at the camp in the early ‘70s. They did the usual things teens do at camp — baseball, swimming, playing guitars…and even make-out sessions…but everyone there had a disability. It was the first time many of them felt comfortable with others, and it was a beautiful thing to watch. It made me think of the scene in Mask where Rocky meets a blind girl (Laura Dern) at camp. I also thought of the movie Inside Moves (based on the book Gimp), about a group of disabled basketball fans who hang out in a bar. And when I heard a disabled woman talk about how, when she was a kid and met a boy at camp she liked, her parents wished it had been a boy with polio since…they were highest up on the disability list. She had cerebral palsy, which was at the bottom. She was from New York, so that made me think of the great documentary on Doc Pomus (the songwriter behind many Elvis hits), who had polio.

It was surprising to hear that the teens were smoking pot at this camp, but it was the ‘60s (this has lots of great archival footage). So when we hear them playing Grateful Dead songs on the porch with acoustic guitars, you’re digging the vibe. Yet when they talk about the sexual activity, it was both refreshing and uncomfortable. Refreshing because…you don’t think of people with these disabilities as being sexual beings, and that’s something that the folks featured in this documentary hate. Yet when I was listening to a guy, who I could barely understand, talk about how wonderful it was when he learned about kissing and got a girl at the camp to “touch my c***” well, TMI, sir. When an older woman talks about an STD she got from a bus driver, it was a rather shocking yet humorous story. But when the camp was sprayed down because of a widespread outbreak of crabs…yuck.

LeBrecht is the perfect person to tell this story (and it’s cool that he’s a UCSD graduate, and we see the school, as well as old footage of Ocean Beach). Starting things off, we see him working as a sound engineer and hear about his love of music and wanting to work with the Grateful Dead. Hearing about his spina bifida, breaks your heart. He tells us, “My sister was a Brownie, but they wouldn’t let me in the Boy Scouts.”

Seeing photos of him with his friends, and later video of him talking about the girlfriend he met at the camp, just warms your heart. And to think, they went from the early ‘70s meeting at camp, to some of them going to San Francisco and becoming activists. It was a great history lesson about this civil rights movement most of us knew little about. And while nowadays I hear from a few friends who have owned businesses that were sued because they didn’t have a ramp for wheelchair access…I listen to LeBrecht talk about arriving at Grand Central Station, and having to get out of his wheelchair to crawl up the filthy steps dragging his wheelchair behind him…you realize just how bad things were for people in chairs.

It was great to hear two former counselors interviewed for this film — Lionel Je-Woodyard and Joe O’Connor. They provided some interesting and humorous anecdotes. 

Ann Cupolo Freeman talks about the camp being like “Woodstock for disabled people” and we see a clip of Richie Havens performing “Freedom” from that festival. And while a lot of the music was perfect (Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers” during the protests, “Crimson & Clover” during some romances), we need to put a moratorium on Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” It’s overused and that, along with some uneven editing, make this documentary cookie cutter in many ways. 

The interview with Paul Jacobson and his wife Sherer, who met at the camp, was touching. How can you not love watching this father take his son for rides on the back of his electric wheelchair, and then cry as he says his son is the only person that doesn’t think he’s different, he’s just “Dad.”

A few of the campers became activists and writers, and one guy — Steve Hoffman, became a transvestite. We see him doing a striptease in drag during a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. If it wasn’t obvious from things I wrote earlier, this is a documentary, but it’s also R-rated. Keep it in mind if watching with your family.

But back to the activists; Judy Heumann was the leader of their civil rights movement, founding the group Disabled in Action. It’s amazing to see clips of her as a kid, having the group vote on whether or not they wanted to make lasagna, on to being an adult and planning their protests — which instead of eating lasagna involved a hunger strike at one point. 

Nixon was against one of Heumann’s causes, thinking it would be too expensive for ramps to be built on all buildings, but after she got wheelchair users to block streets in New York, and the help of Vietnam veterans and the Black Panthers, the political pressure got Nixon to eventually sign the Rehabilitation Act into law.

I remember as a teenager, seeing clips of a news expose about Willowbrook that Geraldo Rivera did. The horrific conditions there, involving special-needs children, helped raise public awareness about just how bad things could be for disabled people. It’s tough watching those clips here.

At the end of the film, we see some of the alumni of Camp Jened go to the original location, which is being bulldozed. I thought of the Alan Arkin movie Indian Summer, where adults come back to visit their favorite camp that’s closing. Hearing my favorite Neil Young song “Sugar Mountain” while watching them point out where various things used to be at the camp…I just became a blubbering mess on the couch. It was just such a joyous, uplifting ending (although why not The Band song “Up on Cripple Creek”?). 

This is the second good documentary the Obama’s have given us for Netflix, after the big deal they signed with the company. Let’s hope it continues.

4 stars out of 5.

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