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Documentary filmmaker Stefan Forbes (Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story) excavates a little-known chapter in true-crime history in his latest effort, recently given its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Relating the details of a 1973 Brooklyn robbery that resulted in the longest hostage event in the history of the New York Police Department, Hold Your Fire convincingly makes the case that the event was “the birthplace of hostage negotiation,” as one interview subject puts it, while delivering a fast-paced, suspenseful real-life thriller featuring an array of fascinating characters.
The incident began when four young Black Muslim men attempted to rob a sporting goods store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They weren’t in pursuit of money but rather guns — shotguns, to be precise — to protect themselves and their families after they had received threats from the Nation of Islam. Before they could get away, the cops showed up, and the criminals took 11 hostages inside the store, including its owner, Jerry Riccio.
Hold Your Fire
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Director-screenwriter: Stefan Forbes1 hour 34 minutes
Riccio, the sort of quintessential, colorfully spoken New Yorker who could represent the city in public service announcements, is one of the film’s principal talking heads. He displays a remarkable sympathy for the men who held him hostage, frequently pointing out that, with one exception, they weren’t really bad guys.
Led by 23-year-old Shu’aib Raheem, the quartet consisted of a college student, a subway worker, a carpenter and a television repairman. But the police mistakenly identified them as members of the violent Black Liberation Army. Raheem and another of the robbers, Dawud Rahman, are interviewed at length in the film and display clear remorse for their actions.
The standoff went on for 47 hours, and a shootout early in the proceedings resulted in the death of a young police officer, Stephen Gilroy (no particular gun was ever linked to the bullet that killed him). At one point, the police even brought in a tank for possible use. Determined to avoid further bloodshed, Police Commissioner Patrick Murphy made the controversial decision to negotiate with the robbers.
“Hostage negotiating? What are you talking about?” one of the cops recalls thinking. “We don’t negotiate with criminals!” It’s but one example of unfortunate comments made by several of the police officers involved. “Just give me a reason to kill you, and I will do it gladly,” one says about his approach to bad guys. Another describes Murphy as a “pantywaist” who didn’t have the respect of the rank-and-file.
Fortunately, saner minds prevailed, among them Harvey Schlossberg, a traffic cop turned NYPD psychologist who was brought in to establish a line of communication with the criminals. Interviewed in the film, Schlossberg (who died earlier this year) comes across as a real mensch (or “consummate Jew,” as one commentator describes him), who more than once declares the sanctity of human life.
Schlossberg’s involvement in the incident was a watershed moment for law enforcement, partially inspired by the horrific results of the Attica prison uprising a couple of years earlier, in which New York state police stormed the prison, and which resulted in the deaths of 33 inmates and 10 correctional officers and employees. (That incident, along with the hostage situation at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the bank robbery that inspired the film Dog Day Afternoon, are briefly discussed.)
Forbes relates the suspenseful tale with a well-edited mixture of archival news footage and contemporary interviews with many of the principals involved, including the daughter of one of the hostages, a Black woman who refused to leave the store when given the chance because she didn’t trust the police. The myriad racial, social and justice issues inherent in the story are explored at length, but never in overly didactic fashion. By the time the film ends and the fates of the various figures revealed, you’re struck not only by the compelling narrative but also by the complex humanity of everyone involved.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Production company: InterPositive Media
Director, screenwriter, director of photography, editor: Stefan Forbes
Producers: Fab 5 Freddy, Stefan Forbes, Tia Wou, Amir Soltani
Composer: Jonathan Sanford
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