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One of the most important roles a documentarian can play is to make sure that people tied to historical events, especially underreported events, are given an opportunity to share their memories while they still can. It’s the principle behind so many Ken Burns productions and the driving mission of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation.
It’s a mission that few directors pursue with the commitment of Stanley Nelson, the prolific filmmaker behind The Murder of Emmett Till, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple and Freedom Riders. Nelson’s documentaries are never formally experimental or paced with particular dynamism, but they’re impossible not to respect because he seeks out subjects who haven’t always been given a platform, and he provides a platform in which those subjects are clearly comfortable enough to tell stories that are quite essential.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Director: Stanley Nelson
On this count, Nelson’s newest film, Showtime’s Attica, may be his most important yet. The rebellion at the Attica correctional facility in New York “celebrates” its 50th anniversary this week, and it has spawned very few retrospectives (see also: HBO Max’s Betrayal at Attica). We’re at sufficient distance from the complicated tragedy that a large subset of viewers probably knows of Attica only from its being referenced in Dog Day Afternoon, and it’s possible that Al Pacino’s chant of “Attica! Attica! Attica!” in that movie is now a protest without any real context.
The events that took place at Attica between Sept. 9 and Sept. 13, 1971 — events that culminated in a team of armed figures retaking the prison and killing dozens of prisoners and hostages alike — have much of their context returned in Nelson’s documentary, which features interviews with prisoners, observers and family members of hostages and other figures connected to the prison.
As a quick refresher: On Sept. 9, 1971, more than 1,200 Attica inmates took control of the D-Yard at the prison and held 42 officers and prison employees hostage. Over four days, they engaged with New York State Department of Corrections leaders, summoning an assortment of public figures to serve as mediators and sympathetic figures in what became a public affairs scandal in addition to an unraveling standoff.
Attica was a maximum security facility, meaning that most of the participating inmates were difficult for many civilians to sympathize with, and that’s before bringing up the racial component of a prison population that was overwhelming Black and Latino. Nelson’s string of talking heads, none of whom mentions the crime that led to their incarceration, convey the human stories of a situation that too many people would try to drain of all humanity. But who better to express the atrocious conditions they were living under at Attica and to explain the reforms they were advocating, from improved medical care to fair disciplinary hearings. Who better to recall the betrayal of the deal the inmates thought they had made and the reasons it fell apart.
The desire by both sides to use the rebellion as a PR opportunity means the events were reasonably well documented at the time. There were teams of media outside the walls of the prison, with ABC News reporter John Johnson as the standout interview subject here. There were times that photographers and videographers were allowed inside the walls as well. The New York State Police, which controlled the ramparts around the occupied yard, provided surveillance footage. Mostly, though, Nelson focuses on the stories of the prisoners, who paint a picture of the situation on the ground. They describe a sensory experience that includes nights spent in tents as rain turned their space into a muddy swamp, makeshift latrines, and the uncomfortable arrivals and departures of figures like Black Panther Bobby Seale, several high-profile newspaper editors, state Sen. John Dunne and Chicago Seven lawyer William Kunstler.
The prisoners featured in the documentary are presumably all in their 70s and 80s now, and it’s hard to know how many would still be around for a comparable documentary in 20 years, or how many more might have been available a decade ago.
That’s why it’s hard to criticize Nelson when there are gaps in his storytelling. With an already reduced pool of potential interview subjects, he would have had to deal with people who didn’t want to talk about Attica at all, or people who wouldn’t want to talk about Attica with a filmmaker whose sympathies almost certainly would lean toward advocating for carceral reform at the very least.
So the prison population is well represented, as are the experiences of the outside observers, and there are children and spouses of hostages in the film — but none of the hostages themselves. A couple of members of the National Guard who participated in the ultimate storming of the prison weigh in, but other than giving the fog-of-war perspective of soldiers being led into action with no leadership and no real mandate, they don’t have much to contribute. I don’t know how many of the hostages who survived the siege are still alive, much less eager to talk about what had to have been a traumatizing situation. Ditto for any guards at Attica, who probably wouldn’t have gained much from sharing stories about what is presented as an inhuman environment well before this incident.
Nelson Rockefeller, New York’s governor at the time, has been dead for 42 years, and while filmmaker Nelson includes audio from the politician’s egregious conversations with Richard Nixon, the screw-up here originated at the highest level. Leaving it to former Rockefeller counsel Michael Whiteman to provide insight isn’t fair to him or enlightening to audiences.
Then, of course, there are all the levels on which the Attica story was perplexing and confusing that Nelson can’t really clear up. The documentary races from the days of rebellion to a full-on siege in only five minutes, and it’s barely comprehensible how things went so wrong so fast. But that’s probably part of the point. Along the same lines, Nelson relies heavily on archival news reports, and they were consistently inconsistent when it came to listing the number of hostages and, eventually, the number of casualties. Not mentioned here is the possibility that some inmates counted amount the casualties may have been killed by fellow inmates — not to be confused with the official lie that some of the hostages were killed by inmates. Nor is it mentioned that large portions of Attica weren’t actually under inmate control during the siege, which I guess you can surmise from the armed officers posted on walkways overlooking the yard. But it’s never explained.
What’s important to Nelson isn’t trivia or the minutiae that left me scratching my head. He’s putting voices out there and reminding or informing audiences about a situation that started bad and only got worse. Fifty years later, we still haven’t fixed the racial disparities in inmate populations, the fraught relations between guards and inmates, or the general dehumanizing effects of the prison system. You can’t let stories like this get lost.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Distributor: Showtime Documentary Films
Production companies: Firelight Films, Topic Studios
Director: Stanley Nelson
Co-director: Traci A. Curry
Producers: Stanley Nelson, Traci A. Curry
Executive producers: Vinnie Malhotra, Marcia Smith, Jihan Robinson
Cinematographers: Antonio Rossi, Ronan Killeen
Editor: Aljernon Tunsil
Music: Tom Phillips
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