Image courtesy of TIFF
Dog Day Afternoon was my introduction to Attica. Al Pacino shouting “Attica, Attica!” in that memorable scene, referring to a riot I knew nothing about in my younger years. In the new Showtime documentary Attica, director Stanley Nelson speaks to former prisoners who survived the rebellion that September 1971, those who helped in negotiations and the families of guards held hostage as leverage.
In 1971, a four-day siege occurred in the Attica Correction Facility in Attica, New York. The town, a “company town,” thrived due to the economy created from the prison. Most of the people living there worked in some form for or because of the jail. It wasn’t a big draw until the news of a riot at the prison broke. The prisoners, mostly Black and Brown men, were fed up with the living conditions and treatment they received. They decided to fight back, and overpowering a guard, took his keys and took over a large area they called “Times Square.” At first, the former prisoners said they were jubilant, happy to have a bit of control, and the siege had a festive feel. They organized medical care for injured inmates and guards, created latrines, took care of immediate needs. Then they called for negotiations, which may have worked with the help of an observer committee if not for the bureaucracy that stood in the way of doing what was humane and right. The retaliation by law enforcement was swift and brutal, causing anguish for all involved.
Attica is a 2-hour documentary that revealed information that many may not be aware of. I, for one, had no idea of the brutality that took place, nor did I know about the band of prisoners who presented their demands in a concise and civilized manner. The bloodthirsty criminals put in people’s head was squashed when many of them spoke with mindful power. In the film’s intro, Nelson wanted the people involved to tell their own story, to recount the devastation of a racist system that incarcerated men, subdued their cry for humanity and were killed by law enforcement who suffered no persecution. Nelson, known for his skill in documenting historical moments and figures like Miles Davis and Marcus Garvey, allows the witnesses to speak for themselves, becoming their witness to some sort of closure by exposing the horrors they endured.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Heather Ann Thompson, serves as a historical consultant on this documentary. She wrote “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy”, outlining the four days of negotiations that ended in senseless deaths, and I’m now adding her book to my list of to-reads.
Out of the many documentaries made chronicling human and civil rights for prisoners, this was one of the more shocking ones. Be forewarned that there are disturbing photos of the carnage after law enforcement swooped in, gassed the prisoners and shot them like fish in a barrel. The survivors’ accounts were also chilling, flat-out describing the ugliness of racism that fueled many officers as they killed unarmed prisoners. All they asked for was cleanliness and a bit of humanity, and they received white supremacist brutality. With high-profile politicians like Rockefeller and Nixon at the top of the heap, it does not surprise the amount of lying and coverups that occurred, blaming African Americans for the whole thing.
You’ll see the futile compensation for the survivors, which is enough to boil any sane person’s blood. For people who break laws, it’s fair to punish them, but to not show humanity to our fellow human beings so perhaps they can find a place outside of prison walls is a crime committed by the powerful. Attica will make you think about who the real criminals are in society.
Check out the 2021 TIFF festival here.