Released: 25th March
Seen: 6th May
In 1971, almost a decade before summer camps became associated with hockey mask-wearing murderers, there was a place called Camp Jened. This camp was a little different from a lot of other camps, in that it had a heavy focus on disabled kids who would be able to have a normal camp experience. They’d play ball, go swimming, catch crabs, all the things that one normally associated with going to summer camp back in the 1970s. It was a place where these kids could just be like any other kid without anything holding them back, because back in 1971 there still wasn’t an American Disabilities Act and the outside world effectively segregated them due to their physical and mental disabilities… eventually, the kids at Camp Jened would have enough of this system and went from camp goers to activists who fought the government and won.
From the start of this documentary you really expect to just get to see a sweet little film about a summer camp full of disabled people and maybe get to have that “See, they’re just like you” moment that comes with this kind of film. I was so sure that’s where this film was going and I was happy to go along with it, and they hold that idea up in the air for almost the first hour of the film until they grab hold of the rug you’re standing on and pull it out from under you because, surprise, this is actually a film about how this group of people made sure that their grievances were heard and fought to have basic anti-discrimination laws passed that could allow them to live a more normal life.
The pivot from the sweetness of the camp to the raw anger of a protest is expertly handled, it’s so smooth that you almost don’t even notice, at first, that the film has left the camp and has moved onto something a little more important. Once it lands on the battle for civil rights, it doesn’t hold back. We get to watch as this group of heroes go through protests, sit-ins, even being driven around in U-Haul’s because buses weren’t accessible. We’re invited to watch as they fight for their right to be treated equally, something that took considerably longer than it should’ve taken considering how large the disabled population is. The film really makes it clear just how much hard work went into protesting, the actual harm that these people put themselves in and doesn’t shy away from it.
It doesn’t hold back from the politics behind these protests, calling out the politicians by name that stood in the way of progress… progress, in this case, is code for “Basic standards of living that anyone should be able to enjoy, seriously, they had to protest to get an accessible place to take a dump, this is nuts”. They make it clear that this battle was won because of how diverse this group was and how they worked together, using their skills in a way that made it impossible to deny them. It’s really quite powerful to witness the ways they fought and worked together, making the latter half of the movie a sheer joy.
I will admit though, for all the praise I give the tonal change in this movie it does take a little long for them to actually get to that change. Long enough that I could see people possibly turning it off before they get to the “Revolution” that’s in the title of the film. I get why we spend so long at the camp, it’s where we get to actually know the people who we’re going to be hearing about for the remainder of the film but it’s so long that we like them by about halfway into the camp stuff and then hover around just waiting to see where this is going. A little tightening up in the edit wouldn’t hurt, that’s all I’m saying
Still, Crip Camp is a such a charming film that has something important to say about a key moment in political history and despite its need to be a little tighter, the film is fascinating and isn’t afraid to call out the problems by name. Unafraid, unsubtle and unbelievably bold, this is worth seeking out if you have a few spare hours (spoilers, you probably do)