Attica: The story of the bloodiest prison riot in US history

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Attica: The story of the bloodiest prison riot in US history


Mention Attica and an iconic moment of Dog Day Afternoon is often a priority. In Sidney Lumet’s 1975 powder keg film, Al Pacino’s bank robber turned hostage taker yells “Attica! Attica! Attica! in a stalemate with the police. He angered the gathered crowds and gained sympathy for his predicament by citing the tragedy that occurred just a few years ago when inmates took over the Attica Correctional Facility in a fight for their humanity, keeping the merry trigger at bay from the police outside the prison walls for four days.

There’s so much to be said about this afternoon dog scene, where a white man invokes a prison rebellion led largely by black and brown men to gain the support of other white onlookers, supplanting subsequently the heartbreaking event of real life in cultural memory.

So think of Stanley Nelson and Traci Curry’s Attica as an act of recovery. Their powerfully empathetic, insightful and gripping documentary – which aired on Showtime just over 50 years after the Attica rebellion – chronicles the events that began as a brawl between inmates and guards, and immediately exploded into a coup. incredibly organized with prisoners taking control of the prison and demanding national media attention.

Prison staff were taken hostage but kept safe under the protection of Muslim prisoners. The detainees also set up security arrangements for the information cameras which were invited inside to listen to testimonies of brutality and inhumane conditions and the round-trip negotiations for a peaceful resolution that never occurred. The documentary, made up of archival footage and interviews with inmates, lawyers and journalists on site, also skillfully weaves the cultural fabric that led to what is still the bloodiest prison rebellion in history. the United States.

“What happened inside Attica resonated with what happened outside Attica in 1971,” Curry told The Guardian during a Zoom call alongside Nelson. She explains that many of Attica’s inmates included members of radical groups like the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground and the Young Lords, who educated fellow inmates and spread the spirit of activism that prevailed throughout the country during the Great War. Vietnam. Curry, who began collaborations with Nelson as a producer on a handful of recent projects before taking on the role of co-director on this film, adds that Attica resonated with reality outside of her own Brooklyn apartment. while they were shooting the movie in 2020..

“It really crystallized what this movie was about, watching the George Floyd protests unfold outside my window,” said Curry. She says she witnessed the police raiding demonstrators from her apartment. She compares Donald Trump’s attack on peaceful protesters near the White House to the political opportunism of York Governor Nelson Rockefeller in running Attica. She compares the contempt for life and humanity in Attica to the early days of the pandemic in American prisons, where Covid-19 epidemics ravage the prison population. “Attica is an invitation for us to reconsider much of what we are prepared to allow the state to do on our behalf today. “

Attica, the film, also feels like a continuation and build-up of documentaries Nelson has been making for over three decades. Whether directing alone or collaborating with others, Nelson has built a tapestry that captures so many vital stories from the history and daily lives of African Americans.

Photography: Courtesy of Showtime

“I would be convinced that people should make films about the communities they come from and something that they know and delve into,” says Nelson, who was 20 when Attica performed. “I remember the total shock and devastation when it ended the way it ended. “

Nelson speaks from his office in Harlem, with the multiple Emmy and Peabody Awards he has racked up over the years strategically framed around him. I can also spy on the national humanities medal he received from Barack Obama on the back.

Nelson’s first film, Two Dollars and a Dream from 1989, was a biography of cosmetics entrepreneur Madame CJ Walker, the first self-made female millionaire. This story has a family connection with the filmmaker. Nelson’s grandfather, FB Ransom, was Walker’s lawyer and the managing director of his company. Her mother, A’Lelia Nelson, for a time became president of the company. Nelson’s directorial career essentially started with a story in his DNA before expanding. He has done biographies on Marcus Garvey and Miles Davis as well as documentaries that have celebrated black press, activists and colleges. His most recent film, the Netflix documentary Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy, covered the institutional failures behind the crack epidemic that led to the mass incarceration of so many blacks.

Nelson’s films also tend to talk to each other. His 2014 documentary, Freedom Summer, about a 1964 campaign to encourage African American voter registration, ends with civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael shouting “Black Power! And his follow-up film, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, coincidentally begins with the same song. But it’s an unintended consequence of chronicling the African-American experience throughout a century and stumbling upon echoes and overlaps. These stories just don’t exist in a vacuum. “What we have been through, what we are going through in this culture, is tied together,” says Nelson. And so too are the stories of institutional failures, passionate activism, and black self-determination presented in Nelson’s past work are also elements of Attica, which in many ways resembles a fascinating microcosm and America’s global.

Photography: Courtesy of Showtime

There is another piece of Attica history that resonates today. The protests and racial reckoning of the past year happened because a young woman named Darnella Frazier stood aside and recorded the murder of George Floyd. His testimony mobilized the country.

Cameras performed a similar function in Attica. Inmates, Nelson recalls, called out the media and their television cameras in the prison. They did it so that the nation could hear them speak their truth and the cameras could serve as witnesses. “They thought if the media came and filmed they would be protected,” Nelson says, “and thank goodness they did. “

His documentary is built from all of those visceral field footage from fifty years ago, continuing the act of witnessing inmates pushed back at the time. “It allows us to tell the story of Attica in a way that we can’t in any other prison uprising in this country. We could tell the story of Attica when we could see it.

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