Attica | Courtesy of TIFF

Attica Review: A Vital Doc

TIFF 2021

4 mins read

(USA, 116 min.)
Dir. Stanley Nelson w/Traci A. Curry
Programme: TIFF Docs


Those of us old enough to remember the Sixties and Seventies will never forget Attica. During a time when Black urban ghettos were nearly destroyed by riots, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were assassinated, the Black Muslims acquired their stellar recruit Muhammad Ali and the revolutionary Black Panther Party was at its peak, the biggest prison takeover in U.S. history took place in a small town in upstate New York. 1200 prisoners, over 60% Black.

When the prisoners took over the facility, it was lightening quick and quite lucky. Some of the prisoners seized the main corridor effectively opening up the entire facility. Though there was some violence in the process but none of the hostages, all guards, were killed or extremely brutalized. When reports started coming in about the prison riot, the news media went into a frenzy of activity. Print and TV journalists, with lots of cameras, descended upon Attica. The prisoners realized that they were in an unwinnable situation and decided to negotiate through media, civil rights personalities, and radical lawyers. Their demands were shockingly simple and show how bad the situation was in the prison. They wanted to be let out of their cells more often: at the time, they spent 14 to 16 hours a day in narrow confinement. The prisoners wanted to able to shower more than once a week. They demanded more than one roll of toilet paper per month. As audiences we get the picture: inhumane conditions coupled with inadequate health facilities and censored books and mail made life in Attica a  living hell.

The Attica Correctional Facility was an incredibly harsh prison, operating under a tense atmosphere, which is rigorously recreated by veteran director Stanley Nelson and his co-director Traci A. Curry. Using extensive archival footage and contemporary interviews with prisoners and family members, the film is a terse and well-paced account of what happened in early September 1971, giving some of the complexity of the event while unfolding the entire story in a riveting journalistic style.

The structural racism of Attica—100% of the guards were white—was backed up by New York State then under the governorship of Nelson Rockefeller, the wealthy son of one America’s grand families of 19th century robber barons. Up to Attica, he had a reputation as being a liberal and that may have cost him the Republican Presidential nomination in 1968.”Rocky” used Attica to burnish his right-wing credentials. Asked to negotiate, he sent in state troops and full force of the police. The massacre was dreadful—and there’s bloody red footage of prisoners being attacked or lying dead in the yard. 29 prisoners died and so did 10 hostages. It only came out years later that the police had killed their own hostages, whose prison wardrobe wasn’t obvious in the chaos—there was fog and tear gas plus bullets filling the entire area.

Eventually, the state had to pay millions of dollars of damages but that was decades after the event and few people cared. Now, people do care. It’s 50 years after Attica and BLM is surrounding us in the media and reality. Stanley Nelson has made a vital contribution to the movement with this doc.

Attica premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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