Crip Camp review: Obamas' follow-up to American Factory on Netflix is part-inspirational, part-inconsistent
The bridge established between the 'Crip Camp' and the Civil Rights Movement for the differently abled is too wobbly to be enjoyed as a beautiful journey.
castLarry Allison, Judith Heumann, James Lebrecht
directorJames Lebrecht, Nicole Newnham
After their debut Netflix production, American Factory, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature earlier this year, author Michelle Obama and former US President Barack Obama present yet another documentary on the streaming platform, Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.
Crip Camp has all the beats of a conventional underdog story. It also throws light on a community's long struggle to break free of societal prejudices and setbacks.
The documentary dates back to the 1950s, when a summer camp organised by the 'hippies' saw a bunch of differently abled American citizens congregated in an environment that embraced them for who they are. This life-altering experience proved to be an inflection point later in the Civil Rights Movement for the differently abled in the US.
It's important to note that euphemisms are thrown out of the window here as the differently abled are addressed as per the original terminology of the 'handicapped.' This is because of three reasons: 1. The differently abled in the documentary often refer to themselves as being handicapped, and their condition as 'handicaps.' 2. The story is mostly set before Section 540 of the Civil Rights Act came into effect. 3. The documentary rallies for equal treatment and zero segregation between the differently abled and others.
The last reason defines the spirit encapsulated in Crip Camp. The documentary restarts the debate between whether the differently abled should be treated 'with special care' or whether efforts should be made for them to blend into society. The argument it makes more vehemently favours the latter.
During the movement, the leaders of the differently abled community claim they are as eligible for all kinds of jobs as others are. What stands in their way are the social stigma (which they say they are still battling in 2020) and the architectural inaccessibility, i.e. the absence of ramps or elevators in schools, colleges, subways, offices, toilets, and public places. They also oppose the government's proposal of them being labelled as 'different but equal,' stressing on their demand to have admission in 'normal' educational institutes rather than being relegated to 'special' schools.
"If I celebrate being given access to use a public toilet, it'll take a lot of time to eradicate the social stigma," Judeth Heumann, the leader of the movement says. This social stigma is the longer battle the differently abled are seen fighting in the documentary. One of them mentions how a lift attendant angrily instructs the support staff to 'get these wheelchairs in' whenever a group of differently abled people wait to enter the elevator. "He doesn't see the person in the wheelchair! He only sees the wheelchair!"
They also discuss in the camp their helpless dependency on parents. One of them claims he cannot fight with his mother because he depends on her physically and financially owing to his condition. Another laments over the fact that they are not even eligible to the right of privacy since they cannot change their clothes or bathe by themselves.
A lovely pair, battling cerebral palsy, met each other in the camp and eventually got married. But the woman confessed her parents were not entirely convinced of her marrying a man battling cerebral palsy owing to the 'hierarchy of disability,' where cerebral palsy comes the last and polio is ranked as the first. "We understand why you'd want to marry someone with cerebral palsy but try someone who has polio instead?"
They also had equally hilarious anecdotes about their sex lives. One of them narrates how she got a Sexually Transmitted Disease once but the hospital staff initially rejected that possibility since they did not assume she could be sexually active. But the camp treats them as normal teenagers in high schools, who would naturally harbour sexual feelings for each other and make advances.
A visually telling scene of a bunch of the differently abled physically climbing the stairs of a government building one step at a time with extreme difficulty ("I'll do this all night if I have to") breaks your heart, and reminds you of the basic privilege of being able to walk without tumbling after every step. As one of the counsellors in the camp rightly summed up, "We're the ones who have to change and adjust, not these people."
Unfortunately, there are only these fleeting instances in an almost-two-hour-long documentary that make it compelling. There are too many 'characters' here, and the perspective keeps oscillating between the macro and the micro components. All the myriad anecdotes are strung together haphazardly rather than being channeled through one coherent stream. While the link between the camp and what it snowballs into seems like an effective storytelling tool, the bridge is too wobbly to make the journey enjoyable.
Other than these shortcomings, directors James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham keep the essence of the story alive. James, a former member of the camp himself, brings a lived-in feel to the proceedings. The cinematography, particularly in the camp by People's Video Theater, is carried out with a handycam-like setup. The visuals are devoid of jerks, which can be attributed to not only the smooth camerawork but also the professional job by editor Eileen Meyer. However, she could have trimmed the film more, and made it more streamlined.
Crip Camp is part-inspirational, part-entertaining. But these elements seldom unite for a seamless whole.
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, produced by Obamas' Higher Ground Productions, is now streaming on Netflix.
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