Hold Your Fire
(USA, 93 min.)
Dir. Stefan Forbes
Programme: TIFF Docs
On a cold winter night in 1973, four young Black men held up a Brooklyn sporting goods store. The robbers were a group of Muslims who wanted guns to protect their families. Luck was not on the thieves’ side as a random passerby caught them in the act and phoned the police. As the cops descended upon the store, all hell broke loose. What began as a simple holdup turned into the longest hostage siege in NYPD history.
Writer-director Stefan Forbes’ investigative documentary Hold Your Fire recounts the events of the two-day hostage siege. Forbes leads viewers through an hour-by-hour breakdown of the standoff to examine broader issues of racial inequality, police reform, and restorative justice.
Hold Your Fire features an array of people directly involved in the 1973 hostage-taking: police officers, psychologists, hostages, negotiators, and two of the hostage-takers. What’s fascinating here is how the interviewees disagree on the details regarding this notorious event. The lack of consensus on what happened and why reflects problematic issues pervading law enforcement then and now.
Former police officers frame the hostage-takers as Black Liberation Army militants, hell-bent on “killing pigs.” Police at the scene believed they were combatting cop-killing radicals. This life and death mindset justified taking down the young Black men by any means necessary.
If anyone can speak to hostage-takers’ intentions, it’s Jerry Riccio, the man working the cash register when the thieves stormed in. Riccio describes the men as a group of dimwits who got in over their heads. Shu’aib Raheem, one of the men convicted for the crime, paints a different picture. Raheem describes his crew as working-class squares.
The former cops still frame the conflict as a radical statement, while Raheem describes it as an act of desperation. Forbes hangs back and refuses to take sides. Instead, he lets each party speak their truth so the viewer may draw their own conclusion. However, the comments uttered by the ex-cops are damning.
The police officers’ hard-line stance on the 1973 case highlights the racial biases within law enforcement. For guys who don’t consider themselves prejudiced, they say plenty of prejudiced things. Viewers can look at this 50-year-old case and see direct parallels to all the incidents of cops gunning down unarmed citizens today.
The police must handle volatile situations (like a hostage crisis) with surgical precision. Hold Your Fire presents numerous examples of law enforcement trying to bludgeon their way to victory. When you have a hammer mentality, everything looks like a nail. So, when the cops arrived to confront four young Black men, they already knew what must be done.
Throughout the film, Forbes returns to the theme of escalation. Law enforcement brought in a tank and even opened fire on a building full of hostages before negotiating. What is there to negotiate when you believe you’re the superior moral authority? Time and again, escalation was preferable to negotiation, reflecting law enforcement’s black and white mindset.
Enter NYPD psychologist Harvey Schlossberg, the father of hostage negotiations. Schlossberg was a true outlier at the time because he was willing to listen to the other side and deescalate a situation to avoid violence. Fellow officers saw Schlossberg as a laughingstock whose tactics would never cut it on the streets, but this pacifist received the last laugh. Hold Your Fire closes by sharing the staggering number of lives saved using Schlossberg’s methods. Schlossberg’s story warrants its own documentary.
This infamous case happened almost 50 years ago but Hold Your Fire feels as tense as any modern true-crime doc. The film never drags thanks to Forbes’ tight editing (clocking in at a brisk 93-minutes). The director spices up talking head segments with a wealth of grainy footage of early ‘70s New York. Jonathan Sanford’s pulse-pounding score enhances the moody visuals, which wouldn’t feel out of place in a political thriller.
Hold Your Fire investigates the not-so-distant past to comment on the world today. The film presents a frustrating reminder of how antiquated ways of thinking inhibit progress. For any culture to move forward, some people must be dragged kicking and screaming.
In 1973, the prospect of the NYPD instituting Schlossberg’s negotiating tactics seemed impossible. And yet, looking back today, the NYPD’s 1973 policies seem archaic. Even though law enforcement still requires drastic reforms, this documentary offers a glimmer of hope for the future. Hold Your Fire presents a much-needed reminder that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice, even if it happens at a glacial pace.
Hold Your Fire premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.