Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
James LeBrecht is a sound editor and sound mixer who has been working on Hollywood productions since 1990. For the past decade or so, he’s mainly done sound work for PBS-backed productions like documentaries for the series Independent Lens and P.O.V. But for this feature, he decided instead of working on other people’s sound, he’d work on his own. He put himself on camera and on microphone. This isn’t exactly something new for him. He’s put himself on camera and on microphone before, but that was nearly 50 years ago when in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s, he attended a summer camp called Camp Jened. The camp was built and designed as a place for people with disabilities to have some fun and interact with others like themselves. LeBrecht was only a teenager when he attended that camp, but a camera crew was there and LeBrecht took it upon himself to be part of that crew, talking on camera and doing interviews.
I’m not sure how the footage was originally going to be used, but LeBrecht recovers that footage and utilizes it here to tell a grander story. In 1973, the American Rehabilitation Act was passed into law. It was meant to stop the discrimination against handicapped or disabled people. In 1990, the American with Disabilities Act, or ADA, was also passed into law. It mandated that all governments from city, to state to federal, as well as all businesses provide accommodations for handicapped or disabled people. It provided access for disabled persons to all of public life.
The passage of those two laws didn’t happen by accident. They were the result of activism from a group of dedicated, disabled people on the front lines. Many of those activists came from Camp Jened. Starting with the footage that he gathered back then and working with Nicole Newnham, a producer-director who has also worked on some PBS-backed productions, LeBrecht tracks the activities of those activists from Camp Jened through the passage of the 1973 law into the passage of the 1990 law. He shows what they did and how they did what they needed to get those pieces of legislation into the books. A lot it of are the protests that they organized.
Judy Heumann was one of the organizers of those protests for the civil rights of disabled people. Heumann worked for “Disabled in Action” or DIA, the advocacy group in New York City that was the leader in pushing for those civil rights laws. One of the big things for which Heumann’s group fought was access ramps or elevators for disabled people in wheelchairs just to get into public schools or public transit like the subway. Her group also wanted city curbs to have more ramps for people in wheelchairs to get onto sidewalks more easily. Because of which, she was dubbed “Lady and the Ramp.”
She’s a smart and strong-willed woman from East Flatbush in Brooklyn. She suffered from polio as a child, which caused her to need a wheelchair. Like LeBrecht though, she attended Camp Jened, which helped her to overcome some stigmas and prejudices she faced in the world because she was disabled. While we see that footage from the camp, we are introduced to others who were there. Some were paralyzed as a result of car accidents. Others had cerebral palsy or various afflictions that required them to need wheelchairs. Some weren’t wheelchair-bound. Some were either blind or deaf.
LeBrecht gives us enough to get good impressions of these various camp members. Some of the best moments of this feature is when he allows them to talk, even though for someone like Denise Jacobson who has cerebral palsy, it’s a struggle to talk and often a simple sentence takes a long time to come out. LeBrecht is patient and allows her to talk, no matter the time elapsed. Despite her palsy, the things she and others like her say are some of the best and funniest lines in the whole film. What we get are brief testimonials from people who feel marginalized and who just want to be recognized as people, as well as given the dignity and independence that most able-body people take for granted.
One very intriguing point is that of disabled persons’ sexuality. It’s intriguing because their experience is sometimes that people don’t see disabled people as sexual. Disabled people are often see as asexual. One person even says that disabled people aren’t even seen as gendered. There’s a lot to unpack there that LeBrecht doesn’t explore. However, it leads some of the campers to talk about their sexual experiences, often for the first time at the camp, some thinking that they’d never have sex ever in their lives. It’s funny though because when it’s revealed that a STD has spread among the Camp Jened campers, never have you seen more people happier.
LeBrecht and Newnham are the directors of this documentary, but it was produced by Higher Ground Productions, which is the company owned by President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama. The Obama’s previous documentary American Factory (2019) won the the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. I would say that Oscar-winner is better than this one, but this film certainly proves that Higher Ground is looking more and more like a reliable company for good content.
Rated R for some language, including sexual references.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 48 mins.
Available on Netflix.