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The Attica Prison Riot of 1971 was the bloodiest prison revolt in U.S. history. Prisoners demanding better living conditions took control of the complex, and after four days of negotiations, state police regained control of the prison, resulting in 43 people dead — 33 of them prisoners, while the other 10 were correctional officers or civilian employees. Filmmakers Stanley Nelson and Traci Curry’s documentary Attica depicts the violent revolt and sheds light on how it sparked the prisoners’ rights movement and the need for ongoing reform in U.S. prisons. Nelson and former Attica inmate Arthur Harrison, who appears in the film, spoke to THR about the process of getting Attica made and why 2021 — 50 years after the riot — was the right year to release the documentary.
What made you want to make a documentary about the Attica Prison Riot?
STANLEY NELSON I had wanted to do a documentary about Attica for a long time. I was about 20 years old when it happened, and I remember it as so many people do. I just thought it was one of the foundational events in my life, and in so many people’s lives, and I felt that the story had never really been told. I never knew why the inmates rebelled. It was never really as clear as we make it in the film why [Gov. Nelson] Rockefeller thought it necessary to go into the prison and take it over with such violence. There was no inciting incident for the takeover. … I had no idea that the amount of footage that we found existed, and I figured that there were about 1,000 people out there in the yard, so a good number of them should still be alive. And by allowing the space for these people to tell their story, we would get a really devastating documentary.
How did you connect with Arthur and the other former inmates featured in the documentary?
NELSON Traci Curry, the co-director and producer, really did the research to find people. We started working with Heather Thompson, who wrote the book Blood in the Water and won a Pulitzer Prize for it, so she was able to help us connect with people. We hired [consultant] Judy Clark, who is a prisoners’ rights advocate. She has unbelievable credibility in the world of formerly incarcerated people — she spent 38 years in prison [for felony murder, for her involvement in a 1981 Brink’s robbery]. She also knows a lot of people within the prison rights community, and so she started talking to people. And then Traci went back through so many paper records that had been [kept] over the last 50 years. … If we found one person, we asked them, “Who else should we talk to?” We got the ball rolling and ended up with an incredible group of people in the film.
Arthur, did you have any trepidation about taking part in the documentary?
ARTHUR HARRISON I didn’t think anything was going to ever happen. And it was painful because I knew what I went through [during the Attica riot] was an unreal and a painful event. For other human beings to treat human beings the way these people treated us, just because we were prisoners. … And the retaking of the prison that day, to see human beings treat human beings so inhumanely — I couldn’t believe that. I thought I was a tough street kid, and I thought I’d seen some of the worst things that could happen to another human being until I saw Attica. We weren’t there to start more trouble. We were there paying the penalty for making mistakes and stuff.
Stanley, you said you were surprised to see how much footage there actually was. What was it like to get that access?
NELSON We knew that there was some footage, but as we started, the [network] footage started to roll in. We just said, “OK, we want everything.” We kept constantly pushing for like a year and a half. Also, the whole film was made in the time of COVID. A lot of the [smaller] archives had shut down. Probably the whole thing took two to three years because we first got a little money to do a sizzle reel. We did two or three interviews and cut some footage together. And then we took that out and went to Showtime, and they bought it. Then we had the production budget, and then maybe a year and a half, two years in, we started production of the main film.
For both of you — Arthur as the subject and Stanley as the filmmaker — what was the most difficult part for you during this?
HARRISON It was like going back in that bad dream again that would never go away. I’m hoping to just be part of the closure part of it. … I get kind of upset at times because what I saw at 22 years old, I don’t think there’s too many 22-year-olds, unless you’re going to a war zone somewhere, seeing what I saw. And once again, what type of human being will do that to another human being? We didn’t have any guns to shoot back with. They said there were over 3,500 rounds shot within a 10- or 15-minute time [period], so that tells you what they were doing. And I’ve seen President [Nixon] and Mr. Rockefeller talking on the phone, and then the president told Rockefeller, “Aren’t most of those guys Black guys?” He’s the president of the United States, telling the governor of one of the biggest states to “go in there and take the prison back, show them the power that we have and that we’re in control.” That just reminded me of slavery all over again — because prisons are plantations.
NELSON We had so much incredible material, and the prisoners and the hostages’ families and observer committee were all so powerful. To cut it down to two hours and to keep it on track so that it had the momentum and drive that we wanted … I think that was really the hardest part for us putting it together. We knew from the beginning that we didn’t want to have narration — we could just hear the voices of the people who lived it. In the beginning, we were going to film historians as part of it, and we actually [interviewed one] and we cut him in to a very, very rough cut. And it just seemed like he was coming from another world: He was talking about what he had read, and people like Arthur were talking about what they saw and heard and felt and smelled. And so we decided not only to make the film without narration but without historians.
HARRISON The smell and the taste, you know, we’re out in the yard for four days, and we built this terrain; when you had to go to the bathroom, this is where you did it. Now, when the prison was taken [back], every prisoner that was taken out of D-Block yard was forced to crawl through human waste before you could get to the other side. So once again, what kind of human being does another human being like that, knowing what you’re getting ready to make this person do? We assumed that negotiations were going OK, so everything was going to work out for everybody, and then all of a sudden it turned into no one giving a damn and everybody was angry at the guys who just complained because they couldn’t get their basic needs inside of prison. It was something that I never believe I would have seen, not here in the United States of America. But it happened. I’m so thankful to [Stanley] Nelson for having the guts and the balls to tell the truth about what happened because our side would’ve never been told, and that’s why I don’t mind talking when I do talk because there’s a lot of brothers who are not here now to represent them.
Why do you think now is a good time to release the film, 50 years after the riot?
NELSON In 50 years, some things have changed superficially. There are educational programs, there’s some things in prison that weren’t there, but you have 2 million people in prison. The prison population has just exploded. Has it gotten better in little instances? Yeah. But that’s all taken away by the fact that there’s so many more people who are in prison. All in all, I think the prison system has gotten worse. I think it’s important that we look at that because right now, [New York’s] Rikers Island is exploding, and there’s headlines day after day about that. Prisons are made so that we put people [away] to forget about [them]. And if that’s the reason, they’re very successful in doing it.
HARRISON Prison is not a place for young guys who want to go out to prove their manhood because there’s been so many of us for so long who bought into that lie — to become a respected Black guy, you got to do some prison time instead of going to college. I’m a guy who did most of my adolescent years in these juvenile homes. I know it’s not the way, so I’m speaking for the love of my children’s children and my friends’ kids that listen: Prison is not a rite of passage.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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