On September 9, 1971, over a thousand inmates started a riot at a maximum security prison in Attica, New York, a small town populated primarily by corrections officers and their families. The prisoners took hostages and delivered a list of demands. In the ensuing days, reporters flocked to the facility, as did neutral observers who were allowed to keep an eye on the negotiations. The siege called attention to Attica’s stark conditions, and the scrutiny seemed to be pushing the state of New York’s penal administrators toward a settlement.
But the powers-that-be refused to consider the rioters’ demands for total amnesty, and after a guard injured in the initial uprising died, public sentiment turned. On September 13, the state police swarmed the prison, cloaked in tear gas, with guns blazing. Hundreds of people were shot. Over 40 died—a quarter of them Attica employees.
Stanley Nelson’s harrowing you-are-there documentary Attica doesn’t waste a lot of time on set-up. The riot begins in the film’s opening minutes, recalled by some of the surviving participants and illustrated by footage of the prisoners massing in the large courtyard they called “Times Square.” Because the press arrived fairly quickly—and stayed all the way through the cops’ bloody surge—Nelson has a lot of incredible film and video to work with. But his primary assets are his interviews: dozens of voices, vividly describing how a moment of hope for the incarcerated ended in a violent denial of their humanity.
The story they tell is rich in sensual detail, evoking the sights and smells of a place that was hellish even before the uprising, and that was as chaotic as a battlefield in the five days that followed. The survivors talk about subsisting for years on meals that cost the state just 21 cents a serving, and having to get by each month with only one roll of toilet paper and meager supplies of soap and toothpaste. After the riot, the prisoners set up makeshift camps in the yard (compared by multiple inmates to something out of an old TV western), and endured the cold and the rain as their daily talks with the government dragged on. After the insurrection was violently put down, the participants were stripped naked and made to march and crawl across the muck and jagged debris, and around the corpses of the fallen.
Nelson and his team of editors and researchers rely only sparingly on pieces of news footage in which anchors and reporters offered their own framing of the story as it unfolded. More often they just take the images themselves (supplemented with film shot by the authorities), and set them under and in between their interviews. After starting in the middle of the action, Nelson over the course of the film has his interviewees—not all of whom were inmates—fill in some of the larger cultural context for the Attica riot. In particular, these men talk about how the burgeoning “Black Power” movement and the rising influence of The Nation Of Islam pushed prisoners across the country to start advocating for their basic human rights.
Nelson is an accomplished documentarian, whose films (like The Black Panthers: Vanguard Of The Revolution, Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool, and Vick) often focus on the intersections of racial identity, institutional racism, and culture. Not surprisingly, his Attica depicts a political movement and its reactionary backlash in ways that remain stubbornly relevant. With its clips of cocky cops chanting “white power” and its audio of President Richard Nixon getting assurances from Governor Nelson Rockefeller that no white people were killed in the climactic melee, Attica is an at-times shocking portrait of Nixon’s “silent majority” reasserting its authority.
Part of the reason the state believed it could solve its Attica problem with one of the bloodiest mass killings in America since the Civil War was that it had the trust of the media, which initially reported what it was officially (and unofficially) told about the inmates’ savagery and intransigence. Only later, when it was clear that the police were directly responsible for nearly every fatality, did the press—joined by investigative committees—start digging into what actually happened.
Still, in the decades since, the public’s understanding of the Attica riot has often been muddied by a general prejudice against the incarcerated, presumed by many to be deserving of whatever misery befell them. What’s been forgotten is that the prisoners’ dramatic seizure of Attica was intended to give them a platform for their legitimate grievances—to get the tax-paying citizens to understand what exactly their money was buying. If nothing else, Nelson’s Attica gives these men another opportunity to raise their voices.