Crip Camp (2020) follows the structure of a well-made film (Simon, 1972), and echoes the social issue film genre (Byars, 1991), thereby telling a clear, chronological story that reifies conservative family values as the solution to challenges faced by society. Through this structure, it fails to push for the change it claims to seek, while presenting content that objectifies people with cognitive disabilities, minimizes the contributions of Black disabled people and LGBT+ disabled people, and erases the voices of non-Black disabled people of color. Crip Camp fails to use the medium of film to present (through tools of filmmaking and the content within) alternative interdependent maps (Mitchell & Snyder, 2017), or reimagine what society can be.
Crip Camp (2020) is a feature-length documentary film co-directed by James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham.
A Well-Made Film
Crip Camp opens by introducing the status quo: a painful world that segregates disabled people from non-disabled. The film then proposes an antidote to this painful world: Camp Jened. The next act of the film poses a series of specific pains that disabled people experience, and Jened's solutions. At Camp Jened, everyone is equal. The outside world is stifling. The transition home marks a transition in the film. Outside of camp, the world is a bleak place filled with barriers. The experiences at camp become a utopian dream for what outside life could be, and the former campers now turn their sights on political action. The next chapter of the film takes the viewer on a wild ride through the 504 Sit-In that started on April 5, 1977, and the later actions that led to the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. At the structural climax of the film, Denise Sherer Jacobsen warns that none of the policy matters much if peoples' attitudes about disability remain unchanged. The denouement is a return to Camp Jened now (an empty lot), and a reunion of activists.
Crip Camp builds to a crisis point (a climax), and then offers a satisfying denouement, leading the viewer through smaller ups and downs along the way. It achieves this through the use of close-ups of key participants' faces, wide shots of group activities/collective action, and medium shots that show interactions between a small handful of characters. The shots are woven together such that they make sense chronologically, enhanced by the bridging effect of LeBrecht's narration and voiceover from interviews. It tells a complete story without any nagging holes. There are no deep questions or experimentations with form. It is a well-made film (Simon, 1972).
A Social Issue Film
Social issue films present a social issue as an individual problem that can only be solved through a return to a traditional (heteronormative, cisnormative nuclear) family. The return to normal at the end of social issue films at best demands that normal include some additional players, who are expected to conform to socially conservative values (Byars, 1991). Crip Camp follows the genre's established norms.
In Crip Camp, disability discrimination is a problem of individuals who must change their hearts and minds, either by signing legislation, or by enforcing it. Individuals must see that disabled people are just like non-disabled people: they aspire to have jobs that earn a good living, to get married, to have children, and to generally blend into society. The disabled activists prove themselves as valuable members of society through political action, working in the formal job market, getting married, and having children. Any other outcomes (even though they must exist) are absent from the film, with the exception of death.
Death in Crip Camp is structurally treated in a way that further underlines the necessity for disabled people to occupy heteronormative, cisnormative positions in society. While certainly as a documentary, there is a limit to how much control a filmmaker has over who dies, or when, the way deaths serve a film's narrative communicate additional layers of information. The inclusion of death as an outcome for those disabled activists from Camp Jened who openly defy socially conservative values reinforces the need to return to those values. Take, for example, Steve Hoffman, who performs a strip tease-inspired drag number.
Success for disabled people is defined as living like the Jacobsens and the LaBrechts (married with children), and the Heumann family (happily married). Corbett O'Toole and Dennis Billups are not portrayed as having a happy ending (they simply disappear). There are no alternative happy endings to the cisnormative family.
Queer cultures are exploited only to push the narrative that disabled people must be outgoing to survive, but not presented as an alternative way of surviving. Hoffman is seen performing a drag number, but doesn't survive. The only disabled person of color in the film who is asserted to have a happy ending is a brief mention of Heumann's Mexican immigrant husband. Drawing from the traditional Hollywood social issue film's tactics, Crip Camp becomes a well-made tool to push conservative family values as the solution to the problem of disability discrimination. Disability thus stands as narrative prosthesis (Mitchell & Snyder, 2013): in Crip Camp, disabled people are either cured of their exclusion from conservative family life, or they die (literally, or figuratively through isolation).
As Brylla (2018) argues, the content of a film can both confirm "sociocultural dispositions" and challenge them, and thus it is vital to analyze that content (not only a film's form). Crip Camp's tidy, chronological plot, and clear declaration of leadership, actions, and consequences push Heumann to the front of a movement held together by her sheer force of nature. This occurs structurally (through cinematography and editing choices), but also through choice of specific historical content. We see young Heumann leading campers at Jened in organizing a meal. This serves as foreshadowing of what is to come when she leads Disabled In Action (DIA), the 504 Sit Ins, and beyond. This image of Heumann erases the collective effort in service of a narrative of inspiration porn (Young, 2014) fueled individual exceptionalism, and at the cost of history. For example, Kitty Cone, who Heumann elsewhere describes as one of the primary organizers of the 504 Sit-In (Heumann, 2012), is hardly mentioned in Crip Camp.
People with intellectual, developmental, and/or psychiatric disabilities, other than cerebral palsy, do not openly appear in the film's contemporary interviews. This reflects a tendency in both academic disability studies and disability rights activism to biomedicalize (and leave out) people with these cognitive disabilities (Jones & Brown, 2013). Willowbrook served predominantly Black and Brown families who lived in poverty (Valldejuli, 2019). The dehumanization of predominantly Black and Brown people with cognitive disabilities at Willowbrook is used to humanize Heumann and her predominantly white comrades. People with cognitive disabilities other than cerebral palsy are talked about and shown in pitiable conditions, but not allowed to represent themselves nor represented as empowered.
Crip Camp therefore does nothing to erase the disability hierarchy it critiques. Instead, it simply shifts it such that people with certain disabilities (those that center mobility and/or sensory impairments) should be included in the community of human beings, while those with other disabilities (i.e. - intellectual disabilities, autism, psychiatric survivors) remain dehumanized and biomedicalized through the objectification of their bodies and actions in an effort to make the latter appear more heroic. This carries into some surprising misrepresentations of post-504, post-ADA educational systems.
Crip Camp suggests that segregated education has ended. However, this does not reflect the systems currently in place. Some extreme examples include the Judge Rotenberg Center's continued 1 use of painful skin shocks to force compliance from residents (Adams & Erevelles, 2017), or the deaths of disabled youth like Max Benson, who was killed by school staff while restrained (Morrar, 2019). Segregation is part and parcel of the contemporary education of disabled youth. The exact nature of this segregation varies considerably, and is worse for disabled people of color, especially Black disabled people, but empirical evidence suggests that the separate but equal that Heumann so vehemently refused is, in fact, still the norm (see Annamma, 2018; Erevelles, 2005; McDermott, et al, 2006 for more details).
Furthermore the use of institutions to house cognitively disabled and mad people (in group homes, behavioral health units, prisons, etc) persists, and disproportionately impacts communities of color, especially Black Americans (Ben-Moshe, et al, 2014). The mainstream disability activism communities (i.e. - Disability Rights Movement, Independent Living Movement) often implicitly (through saneism and horizontal ableism) and explicitly (through the support of policies) even support the existence of institutions and the institutionalization of cognitively disabled people (Jones & Brown, 2013; Montgomery, 2019). Crip Camp's return to normal, and the erasure of these persisting structural (not individual) injustices, is one that supports the continued segregation of people with cognitive disabilities.
Crip Camp's vision of disability activism, and of the future, is overwhelmingly white. The Black Panther Party (BPP) makes a brief appearance as providers of food at the 504 Sit-In, called on by Bradley Lomax. Lomax's deep involvement with the BPP (Moore, 2014; Schweik, 2011) is erased, as is BPP membership of other activists who were present at the Sit-In. We learn nothing of Dusty Irvine beyond her participation in the 504 Sit-Ins and her 23-day hunger strike during the Sit-In. We learn little about Ron Washington. Heumann describes what the BPP (and other non-disabled activists and groups) did for the 504 Sit-In as "support," rather than highlighting the coalitions and solidarity that O'Toole hints at. Given the hurt that Moore (2014) describes between white and Black disabled activists who participated in the 504 Sit-Ins, this erasure is alarming, as is the erasure of non-Black people of color from the film's narrative. This erasure is consistent across disability studies and mainstream disability activism communities (Leary, 2017; Miles, Nishida, & Forber-Pratt, 2017), as well as film/TV representation of disabled people (Smith, Choueiti, & Pieper, 2017) and we (scholars, activists, and artists) must do better.
The call for non-disabled people to change their attitudes in order that policies like 504 and ADA can be fully realized falls flat against a backdrop in which individual exceptionalism reifies systemic ableism that persists against people with cognitive disabilities and disabled people of color. These features make the film palatable to a mainstream audience, but do nothing to showcase the society-changing potential of coalitions and solidarity, nor do they illustrate a vision for interdependent alternative ways of being.
Mitchell & Snyder (2017) point to a number of ways that disability documentaries can build "alternative ethical map[s] of living interdependently" (pg. 177). They specify that disability documentaries have and can continue to use filmmaking techniques to build these interdependent maps. These films reimagine how humans inhabit the world, and ask viewers to follow suit. Interdependence becomes not just disability culture (the home of The Other where disabled people can go instead of "here"), but a way of being that disabled people envision for all people, that benefits all people. Disabled people are experts in manifesting interdependence for all people.
Alternative interdependent maps are sidelined in service of the demands of a well-made film. The use of talking head interviews, choice of close ups from archival footage, and narration from LeBrecht are classic tools of the cinematic trade, which serve to showcase the individualism and exceptionalism of characters by isolating them from their communities and environments, and allowing the audience to experience them up close and personal. The glorification of Heumann further falls into an anti-interdependent film language. Heumann's prowess as an organizer is emphasized at every turn. No other individuals are presented as co-leaders, and teamwork is de-emphasized. This one-leader model contradicts what Heumann herself said in an earlier oral history interview she gave (Heumann, 2012), which highlights how the film has erased or diluted historical evidence in order to create this narrative of individual exceptionality.
The concluding plea from Jacobson for individual viewers to change their attitudes is quickly forgotten in service of a denouement in which several campers rejoice in the nostalgia of revisiting the site of Camp Jened. The sense of closure this nostalgic ending provides releases the viewer from emotional strife and is a hallmark of a well-made film, but antithetical to challenging the unjust conditions that the film vaguely hints persist. In short, the cinematic tools chosen by the filmmakers cater to existing values at the cost of a nuanced understanding of history, and fail to envision alternative interdependent ways of being that are central to challenging the ableist systems on which American society is built.
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As of this writing, the skin shocks continue, by virtue of a stay of the FDA's ruling to ban the use of painful skin shocks. For updates, see: https://autistichoya.net/judge-rotenberg-center/#latest-update
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9/21/2021: Citation for Mitchell, D. T. & Snyder, S. L. (2017) added to reference section.