For cinephiles, screaming “Attica, Attica!” draws images of Dog Day Afternoon and Al Pacino’s virtuoso performance. That film was based on a true hostage situation, which occurred following the Attica Prison Riots. The famed prison has become a shorthand for out-of-control situations between prisoners and guards, but fifty years after the incident, the memories have faded from the public consciousness. However, director Stanley Nelson will not forget the event, and his latest film Attica will make it impossible to ignore. With the fiftieth anniversary of the tragedy on September 13th, its depictions of “law & order” policing remain as relevant as ever.
To create his vivid documentary, Nelson lets those present tell the story of the uprising. Interviews with prisoners provide the most vivid descriptions of the event. Reporters and journalists from the scene reveal what it was like outside the prison, as White Power chants began amongst those about to take it back. The families of the hostages reveal their experience and the trauma of losing their parents and partners. Frustration with the government response comes from all directions. Once the assault to retake the prison begins, Nelson ensures Attica will be impossible to forget through its use of dehumanizing and blood-soaked images of the victims.
The former inmates tell the story with seeming ease, which is rather unsettling to observe. The trauma of the riots can be seen in their eyes as they tell their story. Their desire to be seen as human beings remains after all these years. As one intimate puts it, “you could live and tell your story, or you could die. I made my choice.” Any discussion of the Rashomon effect goes out the window early. Nelson’s use of testimony from civilian negotiators and observers makes it clear that the atrocities were preventable. These stories bring more emotion than the inmates, in part because their guilt pours out.
Nelson brings little style into the documentary, which cuts two ways. While more edits and potentially more backstory could create a slightly more compelling documentary, it would also lessen the impact of the testimony. However, the current construction creates a rhythm within the film that makes the runtime feel bloated. It also relies on talking-head footage more than necessary, which grows tiresome over the two-hour runtime. When Nelson commits to the use of archival footage and photographic evidence, he deploys the perfect clips and images.
Nelson’s commitment to the truth results in a cavalcade of unsettling and graphic images from the prison. The images quickly draw historical parallels to atrocities committed around the world. Images of the prisoners after the assault recall depictions of slave ships. Prison Block D bears a striking resemblance to Saving Private Ryan and visceral Civil War battlefields. The stories of abuse and retaliation bear a striking resemblance to the stories from concentration camps during World War II. While these men were in prison, the abuse speaks to larger systemic issues within the American criminal justice system.
Stanley Nelson’s comprehensive and thought-provoking examination of the Attica uprisings and subsequent massacre is a must-watch film in 2021. It reminds us that the struggles of Black Lives Matter and criminal justice reform remain necessary. Fifty years after this landmark incident, reforms continue. The structural problems that created Attica remains a focal point of the prison reform movement. Nelson’s documentary ensures that the truths of Attica are not forgotten.