Talking About ‘Attica,’ the Newest Documentary on the Prison Uprising

On Sept. 9, 1971, hundreds of inmates took over the Attica Correctional Facility near Buffalo to demand better conditions. “Attica,” a new documentary directed by Stanley Nelson and co-directed by Traci A. Curry, recounts the occupation and the massacre that followed on Sept. 13 when armed law enforcement officers stormed the prison and 39 inmates and hostages were killed under sustained police gunfire and tear-gassing.

Holding more than 40 prison staff members hostage, the inmates set up tents and latrines and allowed journalists to enter as crowds massed outside the walls. The prisoners’ grievances ranged from violence and overcrowding to political rights abuses and insufficient toilet paper (one roll a month, according to a report in The New York Times). In negotiations with the prisoners, Russell Oswald, the state’s commissioner of corrections, had reportedly agreed to nearly all their demands, but after the death of a hostage, Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, in consultation with President Richard M. Nixon, ordered state troopers to take over the prison.

For the anniversary film, now on Showtime, Nelson and Curry dug deep, speaking to former prisoners and figures who had been on the scene, such as the TV journalist John Johnson and the negotiation intermediary Herman Schwartz, a law professor. (Former guards had initially agreed to participate, Curry said, but later declined.) I spoke by phone with Curry and Nelson individually about recapturing the lived reality of Attica and its enduring importance.These are edited excerpts from those conversations.

What does your documentary show us about Attica?

STANLEY NELSON Attica is the largest prison rebellion in the history of the United States. The big thing is that the prisoners held over 30 guards as hostages, and invited in TV cameras and reporters. And if you let camera-people loose, they just film! There’s a fantastic moment where the prisoners say that they’ve been watching [Russell] Oswald, the commissioner of prisons, say something different to reporters outside the gates from what they negotiated inside.

In addition, the New York State Police were videotaping on very early video cameras, Portapaks. They were up on the prison towers shooting through the cross hairs of a rifle scope, using it as a Telephoto lens. They left the mic open, so you can hear them talking about the prisoners and what’s going on.

What shocked you most about the events?

NELSON The whole thing was shocking but it’s the overt racism that is so evident, from the guards and law enforcement yelling “White power!” to the state police, who are talking about the “ugliest, blackest Negro gentleman” they’ve ever seen, to Richard Nixon on the phone with Rockefeller, and his first question is “Is it the Blacks?”

And one thing that’s never talked about is why the prisoners rebelled. It’s almost like we as nonprisoners feel, well, of course they’re mad — they’re in jail. But the prisoners had specific reasons. They went from small mistreatments to complete brutalization and beatings. The prisoners had 30 demands, and the prison system had agreed to 28 of them. They were close!

TRACI A. CURRY I think the most shocking was what happened on the day of the retaking: the wanton violence and the brutality, and the fact that it continued long after the prison was secured and there was no legitimate reason to think that these people were a threat anymore.

What was it like talking to former prisoners and family members of guards?

NELSON Traci Curry did the interviews. The ex-prisoners were so vivid and their memories were so intact. And we always knew that we wanted to talk to the family members of guards, because so many of the families were also devastated by what happened. Their loved ones were killed or in some cases emotionally destroyed.

CURRY Even 50 years later, the memories and the emotions were just beneath the surface, whether it was rage, sadness, or disbelief. I saw my job as creating the safest space possible for them to tell their story in their words. There’s no voice of God “Morgan Freeman” that comes in to fill in the blanks.

How does the movie resonate with today’s issues of racial justice?

NELSON It’s law and order carried to its extreme, and I think it’s the start of a whole different turn in American history. You can’t see the film without thinking about where we are today. There’s over 2 million people incarcerated. The headline in The New York Times today is about Rikers Island. And part of the unspoken truth in the film is that we want to put people in jail and forget about them.

CURRY I’m sitting in my apartment where I made most of this film, and there were days where there were George Floyd protests moving outside my window and I saw police officers descend upon protesters. I think we all saw the way that people in prisons were treated at the peak of the pandemic. We all saw the former president attack protesters outside of the White House and then use that attack as a political opportunity. Those parallels were so resonant for me, and it crystallized for me that this is a story about what happens when people challenge the state’s abuse of its power.

What was it like filming at Attica?

CURRY There’s a lot of emotions around how people there want to frame this narrative. I spent weeks getting all of the necessary permissions from the Corrections Department of New York State to film. But once we got up there, it was a very different thing. We had a couple of encounters with law enforcement. We were stopped and told that we were reported as a suspicious vehicle. I had an angry resident screaming at me in my face calling me a liar. It was a very intense period.

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