One of the funniest/saddest things about American history is how most everything we hold dear came about as the product of civil disobedience, yet those in power repeatedly remind us that while it was heroic in the past, it's absurd in the present.
But let's rewind the tape to the mid-1970s; the Catskills in upstate New York, and Camp Jened, a summer camp specifically designed for disabled youths, and the unlikely starting point of a large-scale civil rights movement that spanned decades and changed the course of human history.
In the new Netflix documentary Crip Camp (produced by the Obamas, by the way), filmmakers James Lebrecht, Nicole Newnham give the anthropology treatment to the Americans with Disabilities Act, tracing its origins to the impact of Camp Jened at a time when institutions like Willowbrook were the norm (look it up if you don't know, but be warned that it's beyond awful). As one subject says in the doc, it was commonplace for the disabled to be thrown into institutions and forgotten, but Jened treated them as human beings. It shouldn't have been novel then, it shouldn't be novel now now, but as we continuously learn throughout Crip Camp, people don't like thinking about things that make them uncomfortable, and despite ramps and accessible buses, the disabled are still undervalued and underestimated and, often, abused members of society.
Cut back to 1977, though, when things were so much worse—and here's where the civil disobedience comes back into play—as former Jened camper Judy Heumann and her compatriots formed alliances with the Black Panthers, created nonprofits and activist groups up and down California and led such historical actions as the San Francisco federal building sit-in, a desperate plea for the government to enforce legislation meant to stem discrimination.
Heumann becomes the film's main focus in a way, a tireless advocate for the disabled and a ferocious speaker and doer. Still, with an almost unbelievable amount of footage shot at Camp Jened and at the various actions that followed in years after, it's easy to appreciate how even the most seemingly inconsequential disabled camper played an important part. Heumann is still alive and fighting, and glimpses of her at 18, becoming radicalized at a hippie-run summer camp in upstate New York, are almost as fun as seeing her verbally eviscerate glad-handing politicians in the '70s.
So maybe Crip Camp says something about the indomitable human spirit, and maybe it's just important viewing for people who had no idea how bad it was or still is today for the disabled. Either way, its ultimate magic comes from the simple understanding that when pissed off people get together and disobey, great things can happen. In the midst of a pandemic that's laying bare the failings of capitalism this might strike especially hot, but Crip Camp should remain important anytime. Show it to everyone you can and take it the fuck seriously.
+History you probably never knew; does wonders for empathy
-Some archival footage feels like padding
Directed by Lebrecht and Newnham
Netflix, R, 106 min.