Written by: Heidi Shepler | October 13th, 2021
Crutch (Sachi Cunningham/Chandler Evans, 2020) 3½ out of 4 stars.
Bill Shannon, a.k.a. “Crutch,” “Crutch Master,” or “Crutches,” is a multidisciplinary artist. He’s a dancer, a street performer, a choreographer, a skateboarder, and a filmmaker, among other talents. His range and experience would be impressive no matter who he was, but what people inevitably notice first about him is that he uses crutches with round bottoms as a mobility aid. Sachi Cunningham and Chandler Evans’ Crutch tracks Shannon’s journey through his art to self-acceptance, self-expression, and activism.
Legg-Calvé-Perthes is a rare disease that affects children, causing permanent damage to one or sometimes both hip(s). While hip replacements are an option, they don’t last a full lifetime, and repeated surgeries can lead to greater problems; it was a devastating diagnosis for a young Bill Shannon to grow up with. The twin burdens of limited mobility and social rejection sharpened his resolve, and his perspective. “He was born a provocateur,” his mother remarks with a fond smile in one scene. “There was a bit of sarcasm to [the title of a show], which…if you know Crutch…” a friend says later, trailing off into a delighted smirk.
In one key moment, Shannon breaks down a video clip of an interaction between himself and an elderly woman walking by one of his street performances. He gives names to the unconscious gestures we make when we think someone needs help: the hesitant hand reaching forward, the way we try to stare without making it look like we’re staring, and so on. Just when we think he might be opportunistically making fun of an old lady, the clip goes on and she trips at the top of a short set of stairs. We see Shannon, who had been covertly watching her watch him, lurch forward as if to catch her. “I’m not just saying people are stupid; I do it, too.”
For Shannon, defining his disability is easy. “It’s a long story but my hips aren’t round.” Throughout Crutch we get the impression that he’s not overly interested in the disability itself. He knows his body and its strengths and limitations, and isn’t interested in anyone’s else’s opinion about it. Throughout the documentary we see him leap into new forms of art with defiance and ferocity. Like any great artist perfecting their craft he falls, and falls, and falls again. But he doesn’t care about falling. He isn’t daunted because he knows what he’s capable of.
What he does care about, however, is forcing those around him to confront their own limitations. Yes, he has medical struggles with his hips, but we have struggles with being compelled to stare, to ask rude questions, to infantilize fully capable adults, to make assumptions, to project our angst and ideologies onto strangers. And all the while we’re doing it, we struggle to understand that we’re being hurtful and rude. In the greater scheme of what it means to live in a healthy, functioning society, which is more debilitating, Shannon’s hips or our self-absorption? The virtuosity of his talent makes the answer clear.