Crip Camp – the ‘unfinished revolution’


Alison Wilde discusses Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution and the factors surrounding the Oscar nomination for this historical documentary film, detailing aspects of the struggle for disability rights in the US.

Film poster for Crip Camp shows a black young man with a guitar pushing a white boy in a wheelchair

Poster for the film, Crip Camp. © Netflix

For anyone who doesn’t know, this is an Oscar nominated documentary which was produced by Barack and Michelle Obama and released on the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It has won several awards, including Best Feature at the International Documentary Association, Best Documentary Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards, the Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival and the Zeno Mountain Award at Miami International Film Festival. The film shows the radical new forms of  freedom and social interaction afforded to young disabled people in Camp Jened (Catskills), and charts some of the ways that life and discussion at the camp sowed crucial seeds for the future activism of the US disability rights movements. It follows the lives of several of its members, especially those who went on to become key figures of the disabled community in Berkeley, California.

I enjoyed Crip Camp more on the second viewing, just fourteen months after I’d first seen it, and I find myself in agreement with those who say it should have won an Academy Award, not least to balance out the huge amount of disability films which have won Oscars for all the wrong reasons.  Despite my opposition to awards in general (as a practice which plays a huge part in upholding the very ideologies which exclude us) I agree with others who have said that Crip Camp was more deserving (always subjective!) than the winner for best documentary – My Octopus Teacher. In short, this is because Crip Camp is unique in telling the world about disabled people’s history over the last 70 years, using our voices, which are so seldom heard. This is something the Academy Awards would do well to learn from. A caveat here is that it is almost impossible to capture the whys and wherefores of how films get on the nomination list and why they eventually win; given there are around 9000 voters, all from the film industry it would seem safe to say that, despite an increasing drive for diversity, these votes will reflect the elitism of the industry.

The usual Oscar bait is, as we all know, usually framed in terms of what disabled people can ‘teach us’,  the ’us’ being generally positioned as non-disabled, with the writing and direction of Oscar winners often being undertaken by well-meaning non-disabled insiders with liberal agendas for change. Ironically, this fundamental virtue of teachability could be seen true for why My Octopus Teacher was chosen over Crip Camp, a documentary where our empathy with the titular octopus is, above all, yet another educative story to remind us of our human privileges and mutual interdependencies.  Awards panels seem to embrace such films while most of us continue to live in our ‘normal’ ways, ignoring the rights of those we wept for, perhaps most obviously in relation to racism. The hypocrisy of this Oscar-winning virtue of teachability is of course not limited to tearjerkers and moral lessons about disabled people, Black people, and animals; it was also alleged that homeless people were moved away from their usual area to clean up Union Station for the Oscars, a cruel irony in the year that Nomadland (deservedly) won three Oscars, for best picture, best director (Chloé Zhao) and best actress in a leading role (Frances McDormand). I digress slightly but the main point I am making is that while most disabled film-makers find themselves fighting industry suspicions of ‘risk’ that tend to be attributed to disabled-led projects, disabled people often have an understandable reluctance to take part in these mission-based stories which disturb the norm momentarily, in order to raise awareness within ‘acceptable’ parameters.

These reasons are exactly why I think that that the film was perfectly pitched to win the Oscar for best documentary, precisely because the risks were so few in ‘allowing us in’, specifically because it told the main features of the historical mission of the disabled people’s movement in the United States, without unsettling too many of the biggest questions and ideologies which govern our oppression, or demanding that we examine current barriers to inclusion. As far as documentaries about social movements and political action go, Crip Camp is exceptionally timely, coming at a time where most people will be aware of the recent evolution of disabled people’s rights, and Trump’s assaults on disabled people, but few will appreciate the battles disabled people had to fight for their cultural recognition. Further, the film was released at time Trump’s administration were dismantling the very ‘rights’ that the people in this film were so determined to win.

But, probably reducing its chances of winning (as suggested), it showed fascinating footage of real disabled people presenting their own accounts –  originating from James LeBrecht’s long standing desire to see a film made about his and others’ experiences of Jened. Conversely, its rare documentation of the valiant fights of disabled people for much-needed changes in social justice seems to be a seductive virtue in an Oscar contender, especially when these can be accomplished without fundamental societal change. In view of the latter I would hesitate to call the story a ‘disability revolution’, but not because I am ungrateful (quite the opposite – I have nothing but appreciation and heartfelt thanks to all our fore-parents who made so much possible for us). Rather, it would have been more accurate to call Crip Camp the ‘unfinished revolution’; that one is on us.

Indeed, Drs Paul Darke, Miro Griffiths and myself discussed these bigger political issues in one of our earliest digital disability podcasts, on Crip Camp. Anyone who has heard our conversation will already know that one of our biggest criticisms of it is that there is no critique of capitalism in the narrative of the film, or in the ways  the story of activism is linked to enforced segregation and  a cultural acceptance of violent spaces. Further, as Paul suggested, the individualistic emphasis of Crip Camp is due in part to cultural differences between the US and UK movements, and the academic  theories to which they are related, e.g. our own position being more closely associated with the earlier Marxist, materialist roots of the UK social model. With our ‘critical hats’ on were also concerned about a few other related issues, namely the tendency of discussions about the movement to fall into discourses of ‘inspirational’ or powerful leadership, the minimal discussion of class privilege and disability, and the unquestioned centrality of a rights-based model.

These were important issues to all of us, and we were also concerned about how the whole film can be read in terms of ‘inspiration porn’.  I was inspired by the sacrifices and supreme acts of endurance  that disabled people were put through in their determination to be heard, but I was simultaneously concerned about what this means to a non-disabled audience intent on robbing us of our rights in the current era (benefits, employment, the imposition of DNR, the removal of our children, and so on); put simply, viewers may well read against the grain to believe that people with significant impairments can survive with so much less, so why not let them?

While the joy of membership of being a part of disabled people’s community was palpable, especially in the footage taken at Jened, where we saw people from a wide range of backgrounds, we had some concerns about how stories such as this tend to make the many disabled people who contribute to the movement (in multiple ways) invisible. As the lie of meritocracy tightens its grip on all of us, it is all too easy to expect and praise the leadership and activities of the ‘criperati’, across all domains, including disability arts. In so doing we forget the hierarchies of impairment and action we still employ to endow some of us with greater worth than others, and we obscure the ways in which dissenting opinions become closed down.  Emphasising the virtues of heroes who have led the battle against seemingly impossible odds can also work to obscure the horrific conditions of living which have often been the catalyst for our allegiance to disability politics, and our activism. While parts of this were touched upon, especially the horrors of Willowbrook State School in New York City as a stimulus for action, the extent of such institutions was not made clear. It is notable that Willowbrook galvanised Judy Heumann’s organization, Disabled in Action, but it then it rather disappears from view, despite her obvious anger at the multitude of social and cultural barriers which remain. Often referred to as ‘the last great disgrace’ one could be forgiven for thinking that places like Willowbrook are firmly in the past. This was not an exception, it was the norm in many countries up to the 1980s, and such practices still exist in different forms, especially for people with learning difficulties.

Conversely, arguing against my own worries about any of these subtexts of the film, I often think that one of the biggest representational issues we are faced with is that of ‘getting it right’, and our conversation on Crip Camp was designed to examine the wrongs and rights of the film. We are rarely let into the elitist arenas of cultural production to tell our own stories, so it feels rather uncomfortable to be such a killjoy. Nonetheless it is understandable that when disabled and Deaf people communicate, we want everything from it, probably an impossible task. Although it may disappoint those of us who want more fundamental changes and would like to see a much greater acknowledgment of class and racial privilege in the movement, we agreed that it is essential viewing for those disabled people who do not know of our rich, powerful, inventive, and painful history. Despite our concerns, Paul, Miro and myself all agreed that we are better off from seeing this film, with Paul suggesting that it can serve us well as a useful route map forward for younger disabled people. Above all it is, as Lawrence Carter Long has said, a testament to the power of community.

One of the other great things about the film, for me, is its illustration of the power of community-building and community action; I was struck by the way that groups such as the Black Panthers, religious groups, and LGBTQ organisations assisted at crucial times, putting the need for mutual interests against the system before any consideration of differences and ideological conflict. From this documentary these actions seemed like pure acts of human mutuality rather than the strategic coalitions to further sectional interests that seem to be part of the current zeitgeist. This is, for me, the most powerful message of the film, the reminder of how to build a pedagogy of the oppressed.

To end on a positive note and a suggestion, it is something of an advance that Crip Camp received a nomination (the Obama connection may have helped here), and my suggestion is that, if we have  to have awards competitions, the voting process might begin to include a category of voting on ‘seldom heard voices’.

A caveat: I am immensely grateful for Paul and Miro for our initial discussion and hope I have captured their views correctly where their names are used. However, the content of this discussion represents my own views only.

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is available on Netflix