Friday, April 23, 2021

Why ‘Crip Camp’ deserves to win the Oscar for Best Documentary

In a scene from the documentary, a young Black camp counselor stands behind a white teenage young man in a wheelchair. Behind them is a rolling green hill with white buildings that are camp dormitories

By Kristen Lopez at IndieWire:

I spend a lot of my time talking about the state of disability representation in media. It’s never been a good time to be disabled, and movies and television have only perpetuated the belief that our lives are sad, broken, and fodder for able-bodied inspiration. I’ve prefaced my answer to the question, “What’s the best disabled movie?” with “Well, nothing’s perfect but….” for years.

That all changed when I watched Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham’s “Crip Camp.” There are two competing storylines within the Netflix documentary. The first is about Camp Jened, a summer camp in the Catskills. Full disclosure: I never got the opportunity to go to summer camp and I’ve been bummed ever since. My parents knew nothing about summer camps for the disabled when I was growing up, and even if they had, as first-time parents of a disabled child they lacked the confidence to send me out on such a voyage to the unknown.

In one key moment in “Crip Camp,” the kids talk about the assumptions their families make about them. Really, the entire documentary focuses on breaking down assumptions about those with disabilities. These kids are perceived to be perpetual virgins, to be dumb, to be otherwise lesser-than. Their parents care, but these kids know their parents underestimate them. I love my parents, but we’ve had our fair share of discussions about the regrets I’ve had through life feeling like they didn’t encourage me. Hearing these teens talk so frank, it showed what I’d been missing being the only disabled girl in my bubble.

More importantly, “Crip Camp” is the story of how Camp Jened galvanized these kids to become activists for the Disabled Rights Movement. Their time at this camp, feeling the true freedom and equality they didn’t find at home, caused them to understand that they (and by extension all of us with disabilities) have the power to ask for more than what we get.

Some viewers might balk at the subject matter of “Crip Camp” as too didactic or dour. But let’s be honest here: That’s the ableism talking. For too long, disabled narratives have been presented as sad and educational because, again, our lives are generally shown through the prism of being sad and educational. That’s not what “Crip Camp” does. Instead, it shows what disabled narratives can be.

In an interview last year with Newnham and LeBrecht, the latter discussed how he saw this film as “a golden opportunity” to finally tell the type of disabled stories he’d always wanted. LeBrecht wanted to tell a story about his time at Jened, a place where he found liberation, joy, and a sense of normalcy outside of his home. Newnham said she’d watched LeBrecht “spend a lot of his time and energy as an advocate for better representation for people with disabilities,” especially disabled filmmakers, so when he brought up his time at Camp Jened it seemed, for LeBrecht especially, “like a golden opportunity.”

The problem is, because the disabled landscape on film and TV remains heavily skewed towards white men, and disabilities remain aesthetically relatable to the able-bodied, “Crip Camp” challenges all of those assumptions. These kids at Camp Jened aren’t just talking about sex or having a crabs outbreak — summer fun for the average kid, amiright? — they’re doing it and not being conventionally attractive. Disability remains so stigmatized because people aren’t used to seeing disability as it is.

An able-bodied, proportionate woman sitting down in a wheelchair is not the same as someone with brittle bone disease in a wheelchair, or someone who is quadriplegic. Seeing someone with polio or spina bifida talking about sex, there’s an immediate shock from the able-bodied audience because they’ve never interacted with a person who has that disability, let alone hear about their sex life. If disabled people were shown in all different forms, as they are in “Crip Camp,” that shock would disappear.

When the pandemic first started, I saw it as an opportunity to confront the systemic inequalities that keep disabled people feeling like they aren’t part of society. If the last year has had anything passing for a silver lining, it’s that aspects of daily life that people with disabilities have long wanted to happen finally did.

“Crip Camp” brings a similar reckoning. If it won the Best Documentary Feature, that would be a clear example of what disabled audiences want to see. To reward its success would prove, once again, that there is a way to make disabled stories fun and accessible to everyone.

This year’s Academy Awards ceremony is poised to make history on a few fronts, from Best Director frontunner ChloĆ© Zhao’s win to the possibility of Viola Davis being the second Black woman to win Best Actress. But if “Crip Camp” wins, it will represent another groundbreaking achievement — LeBrecht would be the first disabled director to win an Oscar — and it would be just as significant.

Singer with disability shines in Broadway star Ali Stroker's new kids book


Book cover with the drawing of white girl in a wheelchair. She is holding a microphone and singing with bright spotlight from above.

From The Associated Press:

NEW YORK (AP) — Broadway star Ali Stroker says she always felt like her "most powerful self" when onstage, and now as the co-author of a new book for kids, she's trying to empower others.

Stroker teamed up with her friend and middle grade author Stacy Davidowitz and set out to create a familiar character: a young girl in a wheelchair named Nat who wants to perform in a local musical.

"The Chance to Fly" — published this week — was a way for the actor to share her own experiences as a person with a disability and big dreams. Stroker, who has used a wheelchair since a car accident paralyzed her when she was 2, says she wanted to help kids with disabilities recognize themselves in the book.

Even before winning a Tony in 2019 for her role in the Broadway revival of "Oklahoma," Stroker served as an example of a person who doesn't let limitations prevent her from achieving her goals. She made history as the first actor in a wheelchair to win the award and dedicated it to all kids with disabilities waiting to be represented in theater.

Stroker said she was driven to write "The Chance to Fly" because she didn't have any stories like it to read when she was in middle school. In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Stroker talked about the challenges of writing a story similar to her own, representing people with disabilities, and naming her wheelchair.

AP: Nat loves musicals and performing. How did performing make you feel at her age?

Stroker: On stage, I felt like I was my most powerful self because people were looking at me and staring at me. But it wasn't just because of my wheelchair and it was a safe place to be different kinds of people. For a long time, I felt like I had to be, you know, like happy and OK and inspirational for other people. And when I was on stage and I was playing a character who was going through something, I got to express all those other things that were living inside of me. Writing this book as well and going back to those really vulnerable, scary, first time moments was so healing. And I think teenage Ali was just really brave and really tough. And I feel so proud of where I am now.

AP: Nat sometimes feels embarrassed about her wheelchair. Was it hard to write about that?

Stroker: It was a challenge for me to go back to those moments. One of the ways I describe it is just like you feel like you're like so hot and you feel like people are looking at you for the thing that you are most self-conscious of, and maybe the thing that you have the most shame about. And it's just overwhelming. But I wanted to write it because whether you have a disability or you're in a wheelchair or not, you have those self-conscious and really difficult moments in your life, especially as a teenager, when you just want to be like everybody else, but you're not like everybody else. And the reason it needed to exist in this book is because I want young people to know that they're not alone in feeling like that.

AP: The adult directors of the show cast Nat but tell her she doesn't have to dance, which upsets her because doesn't want special treatment. Why was that important to include?

Stroker: What's so beautiful about living with a disability is that your creativity to solve problems is so accessible. It's so heightened because this is a part of your everyday life. Nat is really disappointed, but then she goes away and she shares with her friends, her peers what's going on, and then they offer to help her and they are going to not wait for the adults to solve the problem, but they are going to come up with the answer. That's an ideal situation when you can ask your home team, the people that you trust the most for help, and then you can come up with a creative solution.

AP: There are more opportunities recently for stories about people with disabilities. Is that encouraging?

Stroker: I really believe that one of the shifts that needs to happen is that actors with disabilities are cast in roles where the storyline is not about disability and that we are able to just exist in stories and have disabilities and have that not be the storyline. Because that's one of the ways in which I believe some of the change can happen. I think that we are in a diversity movement, but oftentimes disability is not included in that movement because there is an opinion that in order for disability to be included, it has to be addressed. And I am here to say that you can cast somebody — like what happened with "Oklahoma." I can play Ado Annie — my wheelchair is never addressed in the entire show. And yet we get to live this experience with a character who has a disability and we get to watch it and we are there with it, but we don't have to talk about it.

AP: Nat names her wheelchair Peaches. Have you named your chairs?

Stroker: It's just this really beautiful way to personalize this thing. You know, my wheelchair is a part of my every moment, every day my wheelchair sits right next to my bed when I sleep. My wheelchair is my access to the world. And I like to have a good relationship with my chairs. And so a really fun way of doing that is for me to name them. And sometimes there are days that you just want to use those names instead of talking about your equipment. My last chair was Twilight Flake — that was her racing name. She had sparkles!