Written and directed by Stanley Nelson.
Documentary chronicles the five-day prison rebellion that transpired in the fall of 1971 in upstate New York and still stands as the largest and deadliest the country has ever witnessed.
Veteran filmmaker Stanley Nelson (Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple) brings one of the most famous prisoner revolts the world has ever seen into illuminating focus with his upsetting, matter-of-fact documentary Attica.
“It didn’t have to be that way,” are the film’s closing words from Clarence Jones, who took part in negotiations during the 1971 Attica prison uprising, which unfolded in upstate New York’s Attica Correctional Facility over the course of five days.
As Nelson’s film makes clear, the circumstances that led to the riot, the conclusion of which left 43 dead, were a perfect storm of anger and opportunity as more than half of the 2,200 men incarcerated in Attica wrangled control of the prison, taking 42 correctional officers and civilian workers hostage, all without a single gun.
With a variety of perspectives from all sides of the equation – inmates, the families of hostages, journalists, and negotiators – Nelson seeks to demystify the mythic accounts of Attica in the media and explain the full nuances of the situation.
Though it’s easy to note that a documentary exploring the combative relationship between predominantly white guards and non-white inmates couldn’t be more relevant in 2021, Nelson’s doc instead takes aim at the broader systemic foe; an administration refusing to grant prisoners the most simple dignities.
The men who took over Attica weren’t merely screaming at the void; they were desperate for a sliver of control in their confined lives, where even basic hygiene items weren’t provided, let alone education programs, religious allowances, medical care, and freedom from abuse by guards. The guards themselves even warned the prison administration that an explosive incident was brewing, only to be told to leave any possessions at home which could identify their loved ones.
Sadly the inmates’ reasonable requests over the course of the siege became lost in a web of half-hearted negotiations with officials often operating in bad faith, or in the case of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, refusing to enter a dialogue with the prisoners at all. The horrifying implication, from snippets of a phone call between Rockefeller and President Nixon, is that Rockefeller had designs on the Presidency and wanted to illustrate to Nixon that his reputation for being “soft on crime” was unfounded.
As much as the rebellion saw the well-defined racial stratum in Attica broken down as inmates of all creeds were forced to unite, their bargaining power was substantially hobbled by the death of a prison officer, William Quinn, two days after sustaining injuries in the riot. This marked a grim turning point for the uprising, as the community pressured the local authorities to take direct action and swiftly end the standoff.
The doc’s devastating final portion covers the State Police’s violent retaking of the prison; archive footage and somber testimony details a hellish bombardment of tear gas and bullets, all while the police can be heard asking the inmates, again mostly unarmed, to “peacefully surrender.”
But recapturing the prison wasn’t merely about restoring order but also revenge, and consequently covering up anything that embarrassed the state – most shockingly, that most of the dead hostages had been killed by law enforcement bullets. Unsurprisingly, nobody was ever convicted for these deaths.
Despite the emotionally charged nature of the events therein, Nelson’s film brings a sober perspective, embodied by it lacking the overproduced gloss common in so many contemporary docs. With a straightforward, chronological throughline, Nelson concisely captures the mood of those days while pushing the stories from those who were there to the forefront, all of it expertly cut together by Emmy-winning editor Aljernon Tunsil.
The Attica uprising was at its core a plea for basic humanity from people effectively viewed as non-entities by the authorities and indeed much of society. Sadly its aftermath saw no lasting prison reform in New York or the wider United States, and so it falls to this exceptionally crafted documentary to provide a grave reminder of what can happen when any subset of people, especially those without power, are sufficiently dehumanised.
Stanley Nelson’s riveting, infuriating documentary delivers a clear-eyed account of the biggest – and deadliest – prison uprising in U.S. history.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.