Fighting for basic necessities, inmates at Attica Correctional Facility set in motion a riot on September 9, 1971, that would end in tragedy four days later when authorities entered the premises and 39 people were killed in the raid. The deadly incident, which mostly affected men of color, remains a testament of the brutality of the American prison system, an apparatus that dehumanizes those serving time.
With their documentary “Attica” —currently streaming on Showtime — co-directors Stanley Nelson and Traci Curry revisit and expand on the narrative with information from those who lived to tell their story.
Nelson, who was around 20 years old when the riots transpired, remembered the general outline of what took place, but the details were vague. The idea of making a movie that could tell the full story had percolated in his mind for several decades.
“I knew that the story hadn’t been adequately explained,” said Nelson during a virtual Q&A as part of the International Documentary Association’s annual screening series. “I figured that if there were a thousand prisoners in the yard during the rebellion, some of them would probably be alive. There were people to talk to, but they were getting older and that window was closing on getting their firsthand account of what happened.”
Aware that several networks had been on site recording the chaos, the filmmakers diligently searched for the footage with the help of archival producer Rosemary Rotondi. That the prisoners had the foresight and courage to demand the media be allowed inside is what makes what occurred at Attica extraordinary, Curry believes.
“It was the first time that the public had really been allowed to hear and see the experience of people who are in prison in their own words,” she added.
Some of the still images that appear in the film came from the evidence presented over the years as part of lawsuits addressing the September 13, 1971, atrocities committed by law enforcement. These records and those from a settlement in the year 2000, where judge Michael Celesta from the Western District in New York allowed survivors to express their feelings on the matter, were crucial for Curry in tracking down interview subjects.
As they began reaching out to potential participants for the documentary, Curry and Nelson were tactful about the negative emotions they might be reigniting.
“A lot of folks were not excited about the prospect of revisiting a profound trauma of their lives with a total stranger over the phone,” noted Curry. “But there were, fortunately for us, enough of them who were gracious enough and courageous enough to share that with me.” Watch the video of the directing duo’s interview with IndieWire Editor-at-Large Anne Thompson above.
Thinking about the impact of the media coverage on the Attica ordeal, the directors remembered newscaster John Johnson, a major figure in New York media. On the ground during the uprising, he was one of the few reporters who did not relay a false narrative claiming inmates had killed hostages. Although that claim was later disproven, the damage had been done; many among the public continue to believe that claim.
As a result of not running with the inaccurate “official” story, Johnson suffered professional backlash. Based on this and the unchecked biases present in the coverage, Curry considers the media that documented the massacre both “the gift and the curse”
“On the one hand, had those cameras not come in, had the media not reported what happened, we wouldn’t be sitting here today. We wouldn’t be talking about this 50 years later,” said Curry. “There would be probably no record of the government having killed 39 of its own citizens. We would not have this film without that footage. But on the other hand, this is also a story of media malpractice.”