In its ongoing re-creation and refinement of the history of movie production and distribution, Netflix has leaned heavily on documentaries. Especially in the early days, when nine-figure budgets and international auteur credits were just gleams in Ted Sarandos' eye, the company could use the genre — as a rule less expensive to produce and arguably more accessible than most scripted ones — to both draw in subscribers and contribute to a brand identity for original content. Granted, that identity has come to include a little of everything, but there is a warmth, curiosity and humanism to much of its documentary content that is every bit in keeping with the concept of a streaming service that offers not only something for (nearly) everyone, but a voice and intentionality in the material it produces.
The ascent of Netflix as a documentary house reached a high point in February, when American Factory won the Academy Award for Documentary Feature. That win was the result of a partnership — and declaration of intent — between the company and Michelle and Barack Obama's Higher Ground Productions, which optioned Factory after it screened at the Sundance Film Festival. In a symbolic and literal gesture, Netflix had provided a platform for the radical progressive notions of inclusion and compassion.
This, the most recent result of that collaboration (which could use some titular disambiguation) further advances the agenda by looking into the not-so-distant past and examining a criminally understudied chapter in American social justice.
The movie starts out unassumingly, introducing us to a group of young people attending summer camp in the Catskills in the 1970s. Camp Jened is different, though, because it is exclusively for kids with disabilities and, for many of the campers, is the only place they can feel seen and heard and included. Drawing on a wealth of archival footage captured by a student documentary crew embedded in the camp, Crip Camp makes its first job to shatter the illusion of otherness. It brings the viewer into the squalor of adolescent bunk houses and debates about what everybody wants for dinner and the fervid fumblings of summertime first love.
But then the movie moves in tighter on the individual experiences of these kids, the realities they have to face before and after camp. In their own words, some effulgent and clear, some stifled or drawn out by neurological disorders, some nearly indecipherable, they each describe life as lived in a world that insists on systemically ignoring and segregating them. Directors James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham here incorporate some Mid-century documentary footage from inside "homes" for disabled children by way of contrast; it is the stuff of nightmares. Children, naked and unattended, writhe in rows in their own waste, forced to feed themselves when physically incapable of doing so. In seconds, this gives the lie to the myth of the good old days: Unless you were among the chosen, the good old days were a medieval prison sentence.
As a core group of Jened campers grow up and become independent, they make their way to Berkeley, California, and begin to engage as adults with a world physically designed to prevent engagement. The environment is filled with literal physical barriers to entry: sidewalks insurmountable by a wheelchair, staircases impassable on crutches, public bathrooms literally impossible to access. The channel their collective frustration into a movement, with Judith Heumann quickly emerging as their stalwart leader and spokesperson. They take on the collective dismissiveness of American culture and government, using their physical presence and perseverance to foment sweeping, lasting change. It's a rousing example of how people can (or used to) be a force for positive change in the world.
Stylistically, Crip Camp could hardly be called revolutionary. It intercuts traditional talking-head interviews (primarily the campers as adults) with the documentary footage described above and some TV news reportage of the day. But here, the telling of the story is the thing and this one doesn't suffer for lack of embellishment. I'm embarrassed to say I knew basically nothing about the origins of the Americans with Disabilities Act before I watched this. I'm not embarrassed to say I basically cried continuously as I did so. Crip Camp offers an introduction to a part of our recent past we would all do well to learn, and a warm-hearted introduction to a group of friends who found, in togetherness and inclusion, the strength to change the world.
Sounds strange, coming from me, I'm sure; it feels like what we need. R. 106M. NETFLIX.
John J. Bennett is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase and prefers he/him pronouns.