Armed with archival footage, news clips, eyewitness commentary, home movies, and surveillance video, Stanley Nelson’s Attica draws viewers into America’s bloodiest prison revolt: the explosive 1971 riot at Attica Correctional Facility. The result is a gripping, you-are-there account compellingly told in the nearly two-hour Attica, which Nelson produced and codirected with Traci Curry, now playing on Showtime.
The Harlem-born-and-raised Nelson, who has earned three Emmy Awards, is among the world’s top documentarians. His films, often shot for PBS, include the civil rights and Black Power epics Freedom Riders (2011), Freedom Summer (2014) and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2016).
With Attica, Nelson is tackling another landmark racial tragedy, wherein thirty-three inmates and ten prison guards and staffers were butchered, with many others injured and tortured during that horrific bloodbath a half-century ago. Nelson and Curry painstakingly disclose, blow by blow, what really happened, and they take viewers behind the scenes to the perfidious collusion between New York governor Nelson Rockefeller and President Richard Nixon that sealed the fate of not only the prisoners but their hostages as well. The filmmakers also reveal the heroism of the New Left’s courtroom gladiator William Kunstler; ABC News and Amsterdam News reporters John Johnson and Clarence B. Jones; and most of all, those courageous convicts who, like latter-day Spartacuses, stood up and insisted on being treated like human beings.
So, what happened at Attica prison in 1971?
Attica is 250 miles north of New York City. It’s in the state of New York, but in a very rural area. On September 9, 1971, the prisoners took over the prison, and it was the largest prison rebellion in US history. The prisoners held thirty-some-odd guards hostage. That kept law enforcement from going back in and taking the prison, because the prisoners threatened to kill the hostages if law enforcement came in.
The prisoners rebelled because they were treated so terribly in Attica. Everything from small things — like they’d give prisoners one roll of toilet paper to last them a month — to beatings and cruelty of other kinds. So, the prisoners had had enough, and in a spontaneous action, they took over the prison.
Was it spontaneous, or was the seizure of the Attica Correctional Facility well planned by inmates in advance?
No, it wasn’t planned. These were the times of the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, George Jackson [the author of Soledad Brother, who was imprisoned at San Quentin], and some of the other people who were standing up to authority and inequality. They were very popular in the prison. When George Jackson died, the prisoners held a hunger strike for a day or two. All of the prisoners were in solidarity with that — the black, white, and Latino prisoners. And that was something new. There was general unrest, but there wasn’t a real plan for taking over the prison.
Why did you want to tell the story of America’s largest prison uprising now?
In many ways, it just turned out that we told the story today. It could have been told probably ten or twenty years ago — it probably could be told ten or twenty years in the future. It’s a story that will always resonate and always have importance. In some ways, it is just fortuitous that it came out now, because there’s so much that’s happening with prisons all over the country. I’m from New York, and right now, Rikers Island is in the headlines in New York every day.
It’s a time where people are looking at prisons, and law enforcement especially, in a different way. It’s like the window has been cracked a little bit, so that people who might never have thought to doubt law enforcement are doubting law enforcement now, and they’re thinking about their cruelty and racism in a way they might not have thought about it five years ago. The way the public accepts the film has changed in the last few years.