By C.J. Hirschfield
Teaching critical race theory in schools enrages the right wing. This theory states that U.S. social institutions—including the criminal justice system—are laced with racism embedded in rules and procedures that lead to differential outcomes by race.
On the 50th anniversary of the largest prison rebellion in U.S. history, it is high time we examine exactly what took place at Attica; why, and how. Not for the purpose of blaming a race, but to educate, and to inspire us to not repeat the mistakes of the past. Emmy-winning director Stanley Nelson and co-director Traci A. Curry have provided just that with their excellent new documentary, ATTICA.
The facts: On Sept. 9, 1971, over 1,200 inmates at the correctional facility in Attica, NY, seized the yard at the maximum-security prison, took more than three dozen guards and civilian employees hostage, and demanded more humane treatment and better conditions.
ATTICA takes its time to walk us through the five days—without narration—as the event unfolded, utilizing remarkable archival footage shot inside the prison, as well as interviews with former inmates, negotiators, hostage family members, and a national guardsman who was called in to end the uprising. The film’s approach is thoughtful and fair, creating a rich and full context that not only informs about what happened and why, but also raises the issue of what might have been.
Race is openly discussed— All of Attica’s guards were white; 70 percent of the inmates were black or brown. The village in which the prison was located was nearly all white. White inmates were given special privileges; black inmates suffered many types of abuse. Many of the Black inmates were familiar with the writings of activists George Jackson and Malcolm X, and wanted the respect and dignity the writers demanded.
The directors’ decision to divide the film by day helps build the story—and the tension. Following a prisoners’ fight that guards interpreted as more serious than it apparently was, inmates were promised that the fighters would not be harmed. When the promise was broken, inmates took over the prison.
At first, some of the former inmates interviewed described the time as being festive, and “like a picnic.” Former Vietnam vets taught others how to make latrines and shelters. A former wartime medic set up a medical station in the yard that interviewees say was the best medical attention they’d had in years. Muslim prisoners were assigned to guard and protect the hostages, because Islam teaches “that you don’t harm a captive.”
The inmates’ demands seem reasonable: medical care, decent food and fair disciplinary hearings were some of the 28. “All we wanted was to be treated like human beings,” one former inmate says.
One of the most fascinating areas covered in ATTICA is the observers’ committee that was invited by the prisoners to bear witness, but that quickly took on the role of intermediary. Comprised of prominent African American and Hispanic political leaders from New York, activist lawyers, journalists, and members of the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam, the group helped move the negotiations with the Commissioner of Corrections to a point where the vast majority of the prisoners’ demands were agreed upon. The passion and compassion of this group would be very easy to overlook, given the horrific ending to the story.
How the situation went south has to do with a governor who needed to appear tough on crime (We hear Rockefeller’s phone conversation with then-president Nixon), the death of a guard/hostage, the outrage of the community, and the inmates’ unyielding demand for blanket amnesty.
It is only in the final half-hour of the film that we see the melee itself, and it is difficult to watch. Law enforcement was ordered by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller to retake Attica, and the resulting massacre by law enforcement left 29 inmates and 10 hostages dead — “the deadliest violence Americans had inflicted on each other in a single day since the Civil War,” the film’s creators tell us.
Critical race theory teachings: surviving inmates were savagely tortured by police (particularly singled out were the leaders of the negotiations), who yelled “Crawl, nigger.” Law enforcement officers present were told to not discuss the events of the day because “the world wouldn’t understand.” At first, an attempt was made to accuse inmates of killing the hostages, when it was actually the police. No charges were ever brought against authorities for the killings.
It will not be easy to forget the haunting and horrific image of the helicopters flying over the prison, dropping tear gas while playing the recording over and over: “Surrender, you will not be harmed.”
The history of ATTICA needs to be told.
English. 2021. 118 minutes
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Premieres on Showtime Saturday, November 6.
Photos Courtesy of SHOWTIME.
C.J. Hirschfield retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”