Hold Your Fire, 2021.
Written and directed by Stefan Forbes.
Brooklyn, 1973. Shu’aib Raheem tried to steal guns for self-defense, starting the longest hostage siege in NYPD history. NYPD psychologist Harvey Schlossberg fought to reform police use of violence and save lives by using words, not guns.
Documentarian Stefan Forbes (Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story) details the complex, mostly untold history of an event where the truth has been painfully elusive for almost 50 years. With a sense of humanity dripping from every frame, Hold Your Fire powerfully chronicles the impact of a 1973 siege on the city of New York and the wider world, as told by those who were there.
In January 1973, four young Black Muslim men attempted to rob a sporting goods store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, led by 23-year-old Shu’aib Raheem. The botched robbery resulted in a 47-hour siege where the quartet held 11 hostages inside the store, all while the police, incorrectly believing them to be members of the cop-killing Black Liberation Army, became increasingly anxious to bring the scenario to a close by any means necessary.
But it’s ultimately the power of dialogue and restraint, spearheaded by NYPD traffic cop-turned-psychologist Harvey Schlossberg, which ended the incident without further loss of life, which given the powder keg of combustible elements at play is practically miraculous.
Forbes’ film touches broadly on myriad subjects inextricably linked to the 1973 siege – racism in the police pitted against the complexities of policing, the role of the media in escalating conflict, the fluid definition of terrorism, the psychology of trauma, the fragility of masculinity, and most potently communication as the key in resolving most conflicts. Though nobody involved could possibly know it at the time, this event would give rise to contemporary hostage negotiation tactics.
Forbes has laudably scored himself access to prominent representatives from all sides of the equation; the store owner, the hostages and their families, numerous cops on the scene, and Schlossberg himself.
The result is a documentary that feels uncommonly fair in allowing a platform to all parties, though the unmistakable focal figure is the ringleader of the foursome, Raheem. He speaks with a frankness you almost never hear from criminals even decades after the fact, a man who destroyed his free life with his decision to rob the sporting goods store, and who almost a half-century later continues to be racked with guilt and regret.
Raheem is acutely aware of the damage he caused, from the siege’s single death – a police officer whose fatal bullet couldn’t be traced to either the four men or the police – to the wider-reaching psychological damage endured by the hostages. “Oppressed people can become blinded by their own hurt,” Raheem says once the reasoning for his crime is explained, one which will prompt viewers to reconsider the entire context of the incident. Today, Raheem appears a genuinely changed man still seeking daily redemption, even if his act and its consequences can never be undone.
In what might be a contentious but ultimately worthwhile decision, Forbes also offers a space to several police officers, some of whom, to be kind, can’t help but put their feet in their mouths. Captain Al Baker, for instance, makes such dubious claims as knowing “for a fact” that cops aren’t racist, attesting that racism is “over-described as something bad,” and proclaiming that people like to “stick with their own.”
And yet, proving that even a broken clock is right twice a day, he does offer some more considered thoughts on violence as a weakness. Other officers interviewed are presented more charitably, in discussing the difficulties of diffusing a scenario where innocent lives are at stake, and the emotional trauma of seeing a colleague killed in the line of duty.
Many viewers may not want to hear such perspectives, but Forbes’ film is certainly in no way apologia for bad police. One officer offers one of the doc’s sharpest insights when he touches upon the violence endemic in American society since its very inception.
But the star of the show, if there is one, is surely psychoanalyst Schlossberg, who serves as the unassailable voice of reason, slicing through bravado on both sides of the hostage scenario – gauging the emotions of both the perpetrators and trigger-happy cops.
Schlossberg, who sadly passed away earlier this year, is known today as the “father of modern police psychology,” swearing by a de-escalation method referred to as “dynamic inactivity,” that “doing nothing is doing something.” In an era where cops just wanted to bust down the door and fire some bullets, Schlossberg was absolutely invaluable in changing the culture and the conversation, and doubtless saved the lives of the four men in the process.
But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Black vs. blue tensions of course still rage today, and the film’s shattering final revelation – that Schlossberg’s methods aren’t used to train American cops – might go a ways to at least partially explain that. It would be quite the capper to Schlossberg’s formidable legacy if his teachings – which have been used to train 100,000 negotiators worldwide – were made part of the curriculum for U.S. police.
Shot, directed, and edited by Forbes, this is a mighty documentary achievement, shrewdly melding extensive archive footage of the incident with contemporary talking heads of most everyone still living. A jazzy musical score, incorporating drums, piano, bass, cello, and flute, also abets the film’s energetic edit without overpowering it.
An impressively nuanced documentary examining a complex series of events, Hold Your Fire does even-handed justice to a night which helped birth modern hostage negotiation as we know it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.