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Now on Netflix: ‘Crip Camp’ takes viewers inside birth of disability rights movement

Denise and Larry Jacobson of Oakland provide some of the most humorous stories in "Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution," streaming Wednesday on Netflix. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

“Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” couldn’t arrive at a better time, right when we need a true story that not only informs, but reminds us that we can all take action for change.

The sexually candid R-rated Netflix documentary takes a personalized look at the disability rights movement, and arrives  Wednesday on a wave of high expectations and universal acclaim.

Executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama under their Higher Ground Productions company, “Crip Camp” has already amassed honors and raves (it currently has a 100 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating). At its world premiere as an opening night Sundance Film Festival selection, audiences enthusiastically leaped to their feet for a thunderous minutes-long standing ovation. Later, the film nabbed the fest’s audience award for best U.S. documentary.

“Crip Camp” lives up to the acclaim and glowing hype. It’s an intimate journey leading audiences through an influential “hippie” camp for disabled youths and onto the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act — signed into law in 1990— and beyond.

“Crip Camp” directors Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht live in Oakland. (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Along the way, Oakland filmmakers Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht illustrate how the Bay Area — in particular Berkeley and San Francisco — served as influential hotbeds for moving the needle forward, with Berkeley’s innovative groundbreaker, the Center for Independent Living, and an extensive sit-in at San Francisco, figuring prominently in the film.

LeBrecht is the film’s main guide, and he exhibits a smooth gift for storytelling, both as an interviewer and interviewee. He attended camp in the 1970s and is an East Bay sound mixer who uses a wheelchair due to spina bifida.

The film’s first act takes a cinema vérité approach, immersing audiences into the liberating going-ons and high jinks at Camp Jened, a now-defunct summer camp that was nestled in the Catskills, near the site of Woodstock.

LeBrecht and other happy campers — including Oakland’s Denise and Larry Jacobson and Judy Heumann, a determined trailblazer in the disability rights movement — reflect on their life-changing experiences and friendships, relating intimate stories about triumphs, frustrations and even sexual pursuits.

There were many happy campers at Camp Jened, a now-defunct summer camp that was nestled in the Catskills, near the site of Woodstock. (Photo courtesy of Steve Honigsbaum)

For campers and their “hippie” counselors, Camp Jened was like a Shangri-La where friendships and connections naturally evolved and continued. Newnham and LeBrecht expertly re-create that experience through interviews and rely on often humorous, poignant video clips that were shot there.

From there, “Crip Camp” ventures to Berkeley and the Bay Area and on to the 1977 San Francisco sit-in at the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare office.

What’s remarkable about “Crip Camp” is that it so effortlessly weaves how this movement started, from a place of liberating self-expression that went on to become a movement that invoked change. Is that fight over? No. As “Crip Camp” so powerfully, intelligently relates, the revolution is far from over. That’s a lesson we could all learn from.

* 3.5 out of 4 stars