‘Attica’: Filmmaker Stanley Nelson on Why the 1971 Prison Uprising Remains an ‘Evergreen’ American Story

Director Stanley Nelson tells IndieWire how the nation's "bloodiest one-day encounter" shaped the present-day state of criminal justice.
FILE - This Sept. 10, 1971 file photo shows inmates of Attica State Prison as they raise their hands in clenched fist salutes to voice their demands during a negotiating session with New York's prison Commissioner Russell Oswald. The whistleblower who spurred a major state investigation of alleged crimes and cover-ups at Attica prison is still on the case four decades later. Ex-prosecutor Malcolm Bell, now 82 and retired to the Green Mountains of Vermont, recently filed court papers in support of opening long-sealed investigation volumes. (AP Photo, File)
Inmates of Attica State Prison raise their hands in clenched fist salutes to voice their demands

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in September 2021 and has been updated. “Attica” is now nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Oscars.]

On September 9, 1971, over 1,200 inmates at the Attica correctional facility in upstate New York seized control of the maximum-security prison, took over three dozen hostages, and demanded humane treatment and better conditions. Negotiations stalled, and law enforcement was ordered by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller to retake Attica, resulting in a massacre that left 29 inmates and 10 hostages dead. On its 50th anniversary, the new documentary “Attica,” directed by Stanley Nelson with co-director Traci A. Curry, examines one of the most shocking incidents in the nation’s history, one that echoes in the present day in a country with a mass incarceration problem that continues to disproportionately affect Black and brown people.

“Attica is a story that’s evergreen,” Nelson said in an interview with IndieWire. “We could have made the film at any time and the conversations would be the same, on mass incaceration, racial implications, and the need for reform. But it was good to look back at it 50 years later, and with new knowledge never released before. I think the fact that it’s the 50th anniversary just makes it that much more rich and important. But I hope it’s a wake-up call about prison injustices.”

Despite making up close to five percent of the global population, the U.S. has nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population. President Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs in the 1980s and the Clinton/Biden crime bill in the 1990s were instrumental. In 1970, there were 48,500 people in federal and state prisons. Today, that figure has increased exponentially.

“There’s over two million people in prison in the United States, and that’s never happened in the history of the world,” Nelson said. “‘Attica’ is a film I’ve been itching to make for a long time. The uprising and its aftermath shaped the present in ways I think will be surprising to audiences. What I hope the film does is make people think about the prison system and the prisoners as human beings. We don’t think about them at all. And harshly, that’s what the prison system is there to do.”

Drawing strength from the civil rights activism of the era, Attica’s prisoners lobbied to improve their living conditions. But all they got were vague, unfulfilled promises. In a rebellion that came from these long, deep grievances, prisoners made a series of demands to administrators.

Their general list of complaints were reasonable. In dehumanizing conditions, prisoners spent 14 to 16 hours a day in bathroom-size cells; their mail was censored; their reading restricted; their medical care disgraceful; their parole system inequitable; they were permitted only one shower a week and provided a single roll of toilet paper each month; and men regularly went to bed hungry, as the state spent just 63 cents per prisoner per day for food.

FILE - In this file photo of Sept. 10, 1971, inmates of Attica state prison, right, negotiate with state prisons Commissioner Russell Oswald, lower left, at the facility in Attica, N.Y., where inmates had taken control of the maximum-security prison in rural western New York. New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has asked a state judge to unseal documents about the 1971 riot and retaking of Attica state prison in the nation’s bloodiest prison rebellion. (AP Photo, File)
Inmates of Attica state prison negotiate with prisons Commissioner Russell Oswald in 1971AP

Additionally, 63 percent of the inmates were Black and brown; 100 percent of the guards were white, many of them racists, which meant that Black and brown prisoners were routinely racially harassed by the prison’s staff.

“One of the memorable quotes in the film is from a white prisoner who talks about how he got privileges because he was white,” said Nelson. “It’s eye-opening. One of the things the film does that a lot of other films on Attica didn’t do, is tell why the prisoners rebelled. We now understand that they were treated especially cruelly. They were not viewed as human. And it’s that kind of casual racism that goes on to this day.”

During the takeover by state police, the violence was punctuated with racial epithets. An officer can be seen yelling “White power” after Gov. Rockefeller, a craven politician uninterested in the human consequences of his decisions, ordered that the prison be retaken by any means. It was an extremely bloody gas and gun assault that lasted about 15 minutes after four days of fruitless negotiations.

The most sadistic crimes took place after state officials had full control of the prison. Troopers urinated in wounds of surviving prisoners. Prisoners were forced to strip naked and run barefoot over pieces of broken glass and through a gauntlet of corrections officers who took turns beating them with batons. In an effort to further humiliate them, the prisoners marched naked before leering white guards. It’s a scene that immediately draws comparisons to slave markets.

The New York State Special Commission on Attica appointed to investigate the uprising said: “With the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the State Police assault was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.”

Yet, no one paid a price for this injustice. The suriviving prisoners and descendants of the hostages were awarded millions in compensation, which they had to divvy up among themselves — Nelson called it “go away money.” But the state never once admitted any wrongdoing or publicly apologized for the massacre. This didn’t come as a shock to Nelson.

“There were hearings called the McKay Commission, which put it all out there, but nobody was prosecuted for it, which, to me, is not surprising,” he said. “Today, you see African Americans murdered by police officers, and even though people capture it on their cellphones, the police walk free. It’s simply a coninuation of what happened 50 years ago.”

Nelson was 20 years old at the time of the 1971 uprising. He said he was aware of it, but not the specifics, as was the case for most Americans, thanks to a campaign by the state to suppress the truth with flagrant lies. For example, directions from Rockefeller ordered state officials to stick with the story that the inmates had killed the hostages, when it fact, as it was later revealed after autopsies, all the dead had been killed by gunfire of the troopers and guards.

There was much secrecy (even today, the state still refuses to release thousands of crucial records), and cover-ups.

EDS NOTE: NUDITY Prisoners with their hands on their heads and stripped of all clothes are lined up after guards regained control following the Attica prison riot in Attica, New York, Sept. 1971. The riot, in which 43 were killed, lasted four days during which guards were held as hostages. (AP Photo)
Attica inmates with are lined up after guards regained control following the 1971 uprisingAP

“After making this film, I don’t think anybody really knew anything at all,” Nelson said. “We never understood why the prisoners took over the prison. We didn’t understand Nixon’s involvement and Rockefeller’s political ambitions. And I don’t think we really understood how desperately the prisoners were negotiating and trying to end this thing peacefully and not in a slaughter. For most, it’s ‘I know it’s a prison where something significant happened. But I’m not sure of the details’.”

In the decades since the uprising, conditions in Attica and prisons across America haven’t changed much.

“Attica slightly improved for a little while, because it was just so outrageous what happened, but it gradually went back to what it was, and the prison system today is the same,” said Nelson. “It depends on who the warden is, or the commissioner of prisons. They have a lot of power and it really depends on them to determine how ‘good’ the prisons are. But there is a continued need to investigate the conditions of our prisons today and to advocate for an end to mass incarceration.”

“Attica” comes at an important time. Criminal justice reform discussions have been mainstreamed. It was a topic of debate during the 2020 presidental election. But “Attica” is also a cautionary reminder that the country has been here before. Its tragic outcome doesn’t undermine the significance of the resistance. The uprising continues to influence prisoners within the system today.

As recently as 2018, prison protests occured in at least 17 states. During this time, inmates across the U.S. refused to work, engaged in sit-in protests, and, in some cases, went on hunger strikes to draw attention to poor conditions and exploitative labor practices. Like Attica, those protests came with a list of demands, including immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and an immediate end to prison slavery. They also targeted federal laws that make it difficult for inmates to sue officials for rights violations. And they called for an end to racial disparities and an increase in rehabilitation programs.

“It’s carried over, and in a certain way, it has empowered prisoners,” said Nelson. “All long-term prisoners in this country know about Attica and think about Attica, and understand that if push comes to shove, they can hopefully demand their rights. As another brother says in the film, ‘there’ll be consequences, but sometimes you have to.'”

“Attica” is now streaming on Hulu.

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