Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. IFC Films releases the film in theaters and on VOD on Friday, May 20.
“Hold Your Fire” uncovers the untold story behind the longest hostage siege in New York Police Department history that also became the origin story of modern hostage negotiation. Director Stefan Forbes’ “Rashomon”-esque examination of policing in America, told from a triad of conflicting perspectives, arrives as the country finds itself amid a relitigating of the historically volatile relationship between police and African American communities.
In January 1973, a fatal 47 hours at John and Al’s Sporting Goods store in Brooklyn began when four young Black men — Shuaib Raheem, Salih Abdullah, Dawud Rahman, and Yusef Almussidig — were cornered by the NYPD after they attempted to steal guns and ammunition. The four men took hostages, a gun battle ensued, and soon police officer Stephen Gilroy lay dead on the sidewalk.
Hundreds of police officers poured in, intent on carrying out what was then standard NYPD procedure: issue an ultimatum and, if not met within a specified period, raid the store with deadly force despite the hostages. Doing so risked further inflaming tensions between the police and the predominantly African American community.
Into this standoff came Harvey Schlossberg, a NYPD officer with a doctorate in psychology. Schlossberg’s revolutionary emphasis on communication and de-escalation put him at odds with powerful NYPD superiors, but helped stave off a bloodbath and created modern hostage negotiation tactics.
Police training often teaches officers to go in big and fast — a counterproductive approach when dealing with people in the throes of emotional crisis. The film counters that ideal by glorifying a gangly, eccentric intellectual police psychologist who upended traditional notions of masculinity and police violence to end to what could have become another “Attica.”
This efficient documentary serves as a case study of post-civil rights era relations between majority-white police forces and the Black American neighborhoods they patrolled. The director operates from a place of nonjudgmental curiosity by placing a sociological framework around a personal and criminal melodrama. The result is a searing look into a little-known moment in history with profound repercussions for how we understand policing today.
The 1973 standoff received round-the-clock coverage, and the film makes extensive use of vintage reportage. Through it all was the tormenting attraction of instant celebrity; large crowds, predominantly African American, formed at the perimeter of the site to chant support for robbers whom they believed were Black radicals.
Journalists did misreport that the young Muslim men were members of the Black Liberation Army, an anarchist organization with a goal of armed war against the United States government. In truth, they were comprised of a transit worker (Raheem); a college student (Rahman); a TV repairman (Abdullah); and a carpenter (Almussidig). “Four squares,” as Raheem says in the film.
Forbes’ documentary reveals a more complex background. Earlier that month, seven Muslims were brutally executed in a Washington, DC home owned by former professional basketball player Kareem Abdul Jabbar. The target was Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, leader of the Sunni Islamist Hanafi Movement, who wrote letters highly critical of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. The murders brought attention to the armed conflict between Sunni Muslims and NOI Muslims.
Raheem, a Sunni who also challenged NOI ideology, was convinced that he was also a target and an assault was imminent. That led him, along with his Muslim brothers, to John and Al’s Sports for a gun and ammunitions heist to protect themselves.
It was a disastrously ill-planned robbery. The men quickly found themselves in over their heads and decided to bring the confrontation to an end with a peaceful surrender, but it wasn’t that simple. Outside were legions of police officers with itchy trigger fingers, extremely hostile towards these young Black men whom they believed had just killed one of their own. (The bullet that killed Gilroy never matched to any gun.) An initial attempt to surrender was met with a barrage of bullets that severely injured Almussidig.
Absurdity sometimes permeates the stranger-than-fiction narrative, which also shifts to feelings of overwhelming angst as attempts to negotiate are thwarted, the men remain confounded on the inside, and police officers grow increasingly irate. In the 47th hour, the hostages executed a daring escape via the building’s rooftop. A few hours later, after negotiating for peaceful surrender, the men turned themselves over to authorities.
Raheem, who led the foursome, serves as the film’s star and Forbes tells his story in some detail. He explores his childhood, and his relationship with his mother and alleged father; an attempted suicide; and turning to Islam. Most of this is told through interviews with Raheem, with no corroborating testimony.
Many of his hostages were left traumatized, including one woman who later had a miscarriage due to the lingering stresses of the episode. Expressing deep regret and sorrow 48 years later, Raheem doesn’t come across as the violent, arrogant, soulless prick portrayed by the media and police. “I wish there was some way I could go back to the moment I decided to enter the store,” he said. “I’m not an animal. I understand the pain I caused.”
After serving 35 years in prison, where he earned a Master’s degree, Raheem made peace with the NOI and has become a respected voice in the U.S. Restorative Justice movement. Schlossberg died in May 2021 and at the end of the film, we learn that he trained the FBI and over 100,000 negotiators worldwide — but few U.S. police officers learn his methods. No reason is given.
“Hold Your Fire” premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.