The Attica Prison riot, immortalized by Al Pacino’s rebellious refrain in Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon,” became a rallying cry against overzealous policing. Yet with the death of each participant, the exact events at Attica, the largest prison rebellion in US history, have begun to fade in the unforgiving ether of time. In “Attica,” co-directors Stanley Nelson (“The Murder Of Emmett Till”) and Traci A. Curry interview the remaining survivors: the former inmates and the family of the now-deceased prison guards to recall an incident during which self-respect was demanded but tragedy soon followed.
The uprising occurred September 9, 1971 on the grounds of the inhuman prison practices used by prison officials. 1,200 inmates took over the prison, taking 42 people hostage. The conflict lasted for five days, resulting in 29 inmates and 10 hostages dead. It led to murder, created villains and heroes, and uncovered the inequities that existed between races then, and still, five decades later, today. By rendering the world-shaking event, Nelson and Curry’s comprehensive documentary “Attica” gives voice to the silent wronged, and illuminates a disaster that still speaks to America’s present-day racial struggles.
The prison takes its name from the adjacent hamlet of Attica, New York. Similar to a mill town: the detention center fueled the local economy. Generations of men served as correctional guards, demonstrating the inchoate stages of the prison industrial complex. The filmmakers compile a montage of photos and video from the locals, of cheerful family Christmases, Sunday outings to church, and lighthearted tomfoolery.
Besides the jovial mood of these wholesome recollections, another constant appears: the exclusively white faces. Unsurprisingly, only white people populated this area wherein a few short miles away, mostly Black folks and Latinx men tallied the majority of the prison population.
Nelson and Curry inspect the racial dynamics to devastating effect. Take the footage of the townspeople during the rebellion: The town’s white men can be seen arming themselves. The relatives of the prison guards and hostages paint a picture of a town ready to descend into race-based chaos. One talking head explains how locals told him the prisoners would get theirs soon.
One point that Nelson and Curry make with this film: the rebellion at Attica was both a long time coming and predictable. Each former inmate shares a harrowing story. The Muslim prisoners weren’t allowed to worship and were often fed pork. One roll of toilet paper needed to last an inmate for a month. Guards routinely exercised fear and physical harm against them. And Attica was the last stop for many of these men. Essentially, “The Shawshank Redemption” wasn’t too far off. But the catalyst for the rebellion occurred with the death of Black Panther George Jackson, a totem for the new kind of socially conscious prisoner entering the system.
How the insurrection occurred only receives a brief overview. Rather the filmmakers take far greater interest in the chronology of the five days the prisoners held control of the prison. For former inmates, men like Arthur Hanson, Carlos Roche, David Brosiq, etc. the uprising put their destinies back in their own hands. And the crisp archival footage of the crowded prison yard — featuring Black men sporting Black power fists, masked folks defiantly peering into the camera, asserting their right to live — offers a window into the psychology of dehumanized folks now freed.
The filmmakers find incredible New York State police surveillance footage, including a rooftop view surveying the landscape of the prison yard. Audiences can peer into the conditions — resourceful inmates dug their own latrine and set-up their tents. On this footage a cop can be heard saying “the ugliest negro I’ve seen” of a prisoner. Interviews with journalists, who inmates allowed to film within the prison, and the resulting news coverage, are deployed to give an intimate view of the leaders elected by the inmates: Prisoners like the eloquent Elliott ‘L.D.’ Barkley and the imposing Frank ‘Big Black’ Smith.
The footage puts their organizational skills on display — they had their own declaration of rights listing achievable demands for better living conditions. The footage additionally demonstrates the bad faith negotiations by Commissioner of Corrections Russell Oswald. Most of all, the footage illustrates how big of an event this was: Black Panther leader Bobby Seale came (though barely stayed), as did New York State Senator John Dunne, and Chicago 7 lawyer William Kunstler.
Refreshingly, the filmmakers do not cover what any person was incarcerated for. That decision, a practical one due to how long ago the events took place, also says that their crimes shouldn’t forever define them. Nor should their crimes instigate dehumanization.
The climax of “Attica” comes upon the storming of the prison. Audio of revealing phone calls between a stubborn Nelson D. Rockefeller, New York Governor, and a wretched President Richard Nixon reveal how race shaped the response to the rebellion: Rockefeller wanted to prove he was tough on law and order, drawing a direct parallel to the prejudices that still fuel the prison industrial complex system and later Donald Trump. The storming of the prison recalls a similar incident depicted in Tommy Oliver’s documentary “40 Years a Prisoner,” wherein Philadelphia police forcibly murdered MOVE members. As talking heads recall the moment, the blaring sound of gunshots soundtrack their recollections.
“Attica” isn’t an easy watch. When state troopers and the national guard inevitably squash the rebellion what follows is a stream of gruesome, horrendous photography of the aftermath: the dead, mutilated bodies of prisoners are shown. The surviving inmates describe the reprisal-torture local law enforcement submitted them to: Ranging from unsanctioned executions to walking through glass barefooted, to making them strip to nothing and crawl on the ground through their feces.
The memory hasn’t left anyone involved: The dehumanization shaped the talking heads. The daughter of deceased guard William Miller and the son of Carl Valone, who openly sobs on camera, are still affected. And present-day viewers, in the ways the treatment of prisoners haven’t changed and the prison industrial complex has only grown, are equally affected by the incident today. Stanley and Curry’s “Attica” is a harrowing piece of filmmaking, and a fitting, powerful remembrance of those who fought for their humanity.
Attica premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Showtime will release it later this year.