CRIP CAMP (2020)
Founded in New York State in 1951, Camp Jened (pronounced Juh-nay) was a haven for teenagers with disabilities. At Jened, they could participate in sports, make music, have summer romances, and talk about the truth of their lives. In Crip Camp, co-directors Nicole Newnhan and James LeBrecht (a former camper) mix old film footage of camp activities with current interviews and later news footage of disability activism.
Former campers from the 1960s and ’70s recall Jened as a hippie-run free-for-all where no one worried about being judged, or needing extra help, or any of the other small and large indignities of living among the able-bodied. The film makes no effort to downplay the reality of the campers’ bodies for viewers who might be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with them. In fact, what others might perceive as limitations are honored and even celebrated.
Though financial hardship closed the camp in the 1970s, the community that formed there went on to meet in Berkeley, California, and lead the fight for disability rights through lobbying and protests. A major focus of Crip Camp is Judith Heumann, a polio survivor who was instrumental in the eventual passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Rated R, 106 minutes, Netflix, YouTube
IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL (2004)
Born in Chicago in 1892, Henry Darger was thought to be feebleminded and spent portions of his childhood in an institution. As an adult, he earned a pittance as a hospital janitor. His neighbors knew him as a recluse who only mumbled at them about the weather, but they could hear him having animated conversations with himself in his small apartment, speaking in a range of voices and dialects.
Around the time of his death in 1973, his landlords found his rooms filled with artwork and writing, including a 15,145-page fantasy manuscript, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, as well as hundreds of accompanying illustrations. Darger is now known as one of North America’s foremost outsider artists, whose work is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Jessica Yu’s In the Realms of the Unreal is a gorgeous accounting of Darger’s life and work, featuring interviews with the few people who knew him and multiple voiceovers that convey the contents of his manuscript, offer a critical perspective on his evolving techniques, and read from his diary.
Darger’s artwork is used for the bulk of the documentary’s visual elements, his paintings brought to life by animation, whole armies of round-faced Campbell’s Soup and Coppertone kids fighting exploitation by armies of godless adult men. Darger led an active life of the mind behind a blank stare and was forever consumed by the plight of abused and abandoned children. Not rated, 81 minutes, YouTube
LARGER THAN LIFE: THE KEVYN AUCOIN STORY (2017)
Makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin came to prominence in the late 1980s, with the rise of supermodels like Cindy Crawford. At the height of his fame, he perfected the faces of his childhood heroes, Cher and Barbra Streisand, and regularly hung out with Shakespeare in Love-era actress Gwyneth Paltrow. But for all his success, Aucoin’s life was one of suffering. He dealt with the primal wound of adoption, and he spent much of his childhood getting beat up by his peers for being gay.
On top of that, in adulthood he grew eight inches due to an undiagnosed brain tumor that caused a disease called acromegaly. Intense chronic pain led to his death from acetaminophen toxicity in 2002, when he was 40 years old.
Tiffany Bartok’s Larger than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story examines his life and legacy through interviews with supermodels, celebrities, and colleagues, as well as his boyfriends, sisters, and niece. If you’ve ever wondered why so many women tweezed off their eyebrows in the 1990s, this movie says to blame Aucoin, who was capable of starting a trend with a single Vogue cover shoot.
But to get a fuller picture, watch Kevyn Aucoin: Beauty & the Beast in Me (2017), which delves more deeply into Aucoin’s personal struggles. Director Lori Kaye tells the more nuanced story about Aucoin’s adoption, yet leaves out small but salient details about the end of his life.
Both movies would have benefited from interviews with medical experts, rather than relying on second- and third-hand information about acromegaly, the physical and mental health effects of which would have colored every moment of Aucoin’s final years. Not rated, 102 minutes, Prime Video
PRAY AWAY (2021)
Twenty states have banned conversion therapy for LGBTQ minors. But adults who struggle with accepting their sexual identity are free to seek any treatment they think can change their desires. Pray Away focuses on former leaders and members of religious groups that promised to alter sexuality through commitment to a Christian God and what led them to believe such a thing was possible or necessary.
The first full-length documentary directed by Kristine Stolakis, Pray Away’s executive producers include Jason Blum (Get Out) and Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story). Especially in the first half, the documentary reflects the producers’ shared off-kilter, somewhat menacing aesthetic.
This tactic is especially well-deployed in the story of John Paulk, founder of the Love Won Out ministry. In footage from the years that he was living as a straight man, he comes across as an alien in a human suit, so uncomfortable with his identity that even his clothes don’t fit properly. In interviews after he left the conversion therapy movement in 2003, Paulk might as well be a different person.
But the most unsettling moments come in footage of Jeffrey McCall, a current ex-gay proponent who approaches strangers outside the grocery store to testify about how he prayed away his identity as a transgender woman. His convictions are profoundly unconvincing. Rated PG-13, 101 minutes, Netflix
THE RAPE OF RECY TAYLOR (2017)
Recy Taylor was walking home from church when she was kidnapped and raped by six White teenage boys in 1944. Such a crime wasn’t uncommon in Alabama at that time, but Taylor took the unusual step of naming her rapists. The NAACP sent its chief rape investigator, Rosa Parks, who later inspired a national outcry for justice.
Nancy Buirski’s powerful documentary tells Taylor’s story using footage from old race films, shot outside of the Hollywood system in the first half of the 20th century, as well as photographs and other documentation from the civil rights era. There are interviews with Taylor’s siblings and with historians, including Danielle L. McGuire, whose 2010 book, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, inspired the documentary.
Buirski’s approach is more oriented to oral history than a journalistic representation of facts. She sets the violation of the rape, its aftermath, and the ongoing injustice of sexual violence against Black women at the forefront of the story, as she touches on the legal decisions made in Taylor’s case and its impact on the civil rights movement. Not rated, 91 minutes, Hulu, Prime Video, Tubi