By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 1/18/22 – Stanley Nelson’s documentary Attica is a harrowing, intense look at the riot that began at Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York on September 9, 1971. It is also a powerful film about America’s ongoing problem with racism and the abuse of power by people who see others as inhuman. Survivors, observers, and expert government officials recount the 1971 uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility. The violent five-day standoff between mostly Black and Latino inmates and law enforcement gripped America then and highlights the urgent, ongoing need for reform 50 years later. The Showtime documentary, directed by Emmy-winning director Stanley Nelson, looks back on the 1971 prison uprising with the benefit of 50 years’ hindsight. Attica is one of 9 films shortlisted for the Best Documentary Oscar at the upcoming 94th Academy Awards in 2022. Currently, Attica is screening for free on Showtime: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1Zq9Am5UfM
Stanley Nelson’s Attica is hardly the first screen attempt to deal with the Attica prison riot of 1971, when inmates took control of part of the penitentiary and, holding hostages, demanded better living conditions before authorities violently subdued them on the fifth day. The presence of TV cameras at the time helped keep the events in the national news, and a blistering 1974 documentary by Cinda Firestone (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oG1f7FzgXY8) looked back on the uprising almost contemporaneously, with sympathy for the reformist perspective and outrage at the bloodshed perpetrated by officials.
But Nelson’s film, and the many former Attica prisoners interviewed for it, has the benefit of 50 years’ hindsight. By going day by day through the riot, it suggests just how differently things might have ended and how close the inmates came to winning most of what they asked for. Then, in the film’s telling, the death of the correction officer William E. Quinn signaled that all bets were off.
Nelson’s straightforward approach, which alternates talking heads (who also include reporters, mediators called in by the prisoners as observers, and a daughter of Quinn’s) with archival material, doesn’t always make for pulse-quickening viewing. But there is a fascination in hearing about the logistics of the riot and just how surreal events were for the prisoners. One inmate recalls another saying that he hadn’t been outside after dark in 22 years. Over 30 prison staff members were taken hostage in the largest prison uprising in American history. Once they temporarily gained the upper hand, the prisoners at Attica – mostly Black and Latino but also White – tried to negotiate for better conditions. They brought in a slew of outside personalities including senators, lawyers, journalists, and even Russell Oswald, the NY Commissioner of Corrections. Instead of reaching a peaceful conclusion, however, the standoff ended five days later in a hail of bullets that took out hostages and inmates alike.
In the case of Attica, New York, it had been a prison town since the 1930s. All of its employees were local residents and its inmates were quite often brought in from the boroughs of a city 250 miles away. “They might as well have been aliens,” is how one talking head describes this difference. Lawyer Joe Heath is more blunt: “There was this culture clash. All White guards and a population of prisoners that was 70% to 80% Black and brown.”
“Something was always going to happen,” says George Che Nieves, one of numerous former prisoners Nelson interviews. One wouldn’t expect creature comforts in maximum security jail, but the promises Che Nieves alluded to were bare necessities like toothpaste, soap, and enough toilet paper, not to mention bedsheets and working toilets. This was a problem for everyone, though Al Victory points out that, as a White prisoner, he was able to pull slightly better treatment and resources from the guards. It’s telling that, when the list of demands are read by L.D. Barkley, the man the inmates elected to be their spokesperson, most of them were deemed reasonable by the negotiating “observer council” brought in from outside. There was general consensus among all the inmates, regardless of race.
That observer council was made up of a group of people sympathetic to prisoners’ causes. It included Senator John Donne, chairman of the Prisoner Committee, Clarence Jones, publisher of the Amsterdam News and William Kuntsler, the lawyer played by Mark Rylance in The Trial of The Chicago 7.” When the inmates saw John Johnson, one of the few Black reporters in the 1970s on WABC, they invited him in as well. Johnson is one of the major talking heads here. “I thought that this was going to be negotiated to a decent humanitarian end,” he said of the proceedings. Most of the people involved on the inside thought likewise.
The dry presentation is also deceptive: It builds to a powerful final half-hour that makes the case that the brutality used in ending the riot was excessive, criminal and racist – a show of force closer to revenge. We know now that, on September 13, 1971, 29 inmates and 10 hostages were killed when the police and the National Guard quashed the uprising. All of these people were killed by law enforcement, an ominous end title tells us. Using extremely graphic police surveillance footage, Nelson presents just how horrific these events were. You can hear the announcements droning on about surrendering to police while gunfire cuts down people running to do so. There were racial slurs and torturing of surviving inmates; we are spared no aspect of the vengeful actions of law enforcement, actions that would eventually cost NY state $24 million in settlements to surviving inmates, hostages, and the families of deceased hostages. The footage and aftermath are so disturbing that one can barely watch it. It makes you wonder who the worst criminal is.
Nelson Rockefeller was Governor of New York at the time. Rockefeller’s presidential aspirations only got him to the vice presidency, and he is heard on the phone with Richard M. Nixon after “order” is restored. The soon-to-be-disgraced president asks if all the dead inmates were Black and implies that it’s great if they are. Thankfully, Nixon doesn’t get the final words in “Attica.” Those go to two people: Dee Quinn, daughter of the deceased guard, who says of the settlement “what does money do when you don’t have your Dad? It was the state’s way of saying we’re gonna give you this money and we want you to go away.” And to Clarence Jones, who says “it didn’t have to happen this way. I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever forget Attica.” After watching this documentary, neither will you.