CRUTCH Film Review
By Matt Conlin
CUNY School of Professional Studies
At first glance, “CRUTCH” is a documentary about Bill Shannon, an internationally renowned American artist, break-dancer, choreographer, skate punk with a degenerative hip condition, and his rise to fame, but it is much more than that. Directors Cunningham and Vayabobo present a complex narrative about societal ableism through Shannon’s life story.
We begin with an interview of Shannon in Brooklyn circa 2001. He says that while the dance world focuses on dance and the body, it cares about the perfect body, not the disabled ones. He says, “So, there’s this thing while I would never be considered in the dance world as simply a dancer, I will always be looked at as an anomaly….”
Directors Cunningham and Vayabobo carefully navigate through Shannon’s life while cutting craftily back at appropriate moments to one of his guest appearances at a camp for children with Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease. Shannon is charismatic and soft-spoken. His personality alone is enough to drive the film. We also get everything you’d expect from a documentary on this subject: flourishes of heartfelt family moments, the highs and lows of life growing up different, teen isolation, and young adult anger, but the directors never portray Shannon as an object of pity. The directors ask us to witness the complexities of disability identity and unpack common misconceptions that we bring with us as spectators.
We witness Shannon’s brilliant creativity and his innate gift for reinventing himself. From a carefree child to a rebellious skateboarding teen, Shannon had a desire to express himself. He went so far as to protest the police who detained him for skateboarding against state laws. In his mid-to-late teens, Shannon had to accept the use of crutches as a permanent fixture in his life. As he notes, the choice is to use the crutches or have multiple hip surgeries until you reach the point where you can’t have another. The lifestyle change prompted his stage of performance art exploration.
From this point forward, a good portion of Cunningham and Vayaboyo’s documentary explores disability identity, the problems with “inspiration porn,” and how Shannon’s art reveals how people respond to disability than to disability itself. Aware of how non-disabled people view his disability, Shannon explores the interaction between himself and the world. How do people react when he falls? When he breakdances? Is it the spectacle of freakdom? Inspiration? At one of his college talks, a student remarks that his early tactics were manipulative. He acknowledges the comment, validates it, and asks viewers of his work to consider that performance art invokes emotions and represents human experiences at different stages in life. He openly admits he struggled with his anger and depression and frustration with how people viewed him. But he was also using these feelings to fuel his creative endeavor. Even at the peak of his fame, the reviews of his performances take a condescending tone. At what point can the world acknowledge that Shannon is an artist, not a disability spectacle?
CRUTCH is not the standard disability documentary. What it does is hold up a mirror to the audience. It asks us to reexamine our biases and preconceived opinions and leave them at the door when the credits roll. CRUTCH is must-see film as it asks us an audience what roll we play when viewing art and performance. How do we react to the performers and their identities as they share their message.