By Ashia Lance
During ATTICA, Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry’s stunning documentary about the largest prison riot in US history, a 1971 network news reporter announces, “In the final hours of the revolt led primarily by Blacks, the inmates murdered nine of their White hostages.”
Only it isn’t true.
White State Troopers and snipers had, in a surreal carnage, killed all of the 29 unarmed Black inmates and 10 of the White hostages. A helicopter that dumped a sickly green gas on the inmates and hostages used a megaphone to repeat over and over, “You will not be harmed” all while Troopers riddled the trapped crowd with bullets.
In ATTICA, the directors brilliantly reshape race narrative by giving voice to the unheard minority voices and disrupting the dominant historical narrative. It’s a career strategy that has led to Nelson’s THE MURDER OF EMMETT TILL, JONESTOWN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PEOPLE’S TEMPLE and MILES DAVIS: BIRTH OF THE COOL, and his being the recipient of fellowships at the American Film Institute, Columbia University, an Emmy, a MacArthur Fellowship, and was presented the National Humanities Medal by President Obama in 2014.
The audience learns about the Attica inmates’ efforts to bring about change in the months preceding the September 1971 upstate New York uprising. The approximately 2200 inmates (in a prison designed for 1600) had presented a letter to Commissioner of Corrections Russell Oswald and Governor Nelson Rockefeller in July 1971. Their requests included demands for adequate medical care, legal representation, an end to racial and political persecution, and an end to the escalating practice of physical brutality perpetrated upon the inmates by the guards — there were 27 such demands. Two more peaceful protests failed to change the brutal conditions that included torture and killing of prisoners alongside daily indignities such as limiting inmates to one roll of toilet paper a month.
Nelson traces the growing unrest from having Attica, an all-White prison town in rural upstate New York, provide 100% of the Guards and prison administration for an approximately 70% Black and Latino urban population. After watching stark contrasts between the nightly news reports of 1971 and painstakingly constructed historical footage by Nelson, the audience is left to wonder, “who writes these outright lies and perpetuates racist propaganda? How are human rights abuses fostered in a country built on the notion that, ‘All men are created equal’ and are ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights’?”
I feel that ATTICA is the latest addition in a what make a trilogy of films that powerfully expose the dire effects of violating American citizens’ Constitutional Rights — those unalienable Rights. Nelson’s ATTICA shows in disturbing detail how Black peoples’ rights are brutalized by prison systems in the US, a country that supplies 5% of the entire world’s population yet provides 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. Ava DuVernay’s 13th, the second film in this trilogy reveals, how slavery has been maintained by stripping a citizen of unalienable rights through the 13th’s Amendment loophole of incarceration. The New York Times’ recent FRAMING BRITNEY SPEARS completes this trilogy by detailing how a pop star has been stripped of her rights due to unregulated Guardianship and Conservatorship; an estimated 1.5 million elderly and disabled victims are thought to be affected by this today. Spears has been subjected to what appears to be Estate and Labor Trafficking via violation of the 14th Amendment and Conservatorship, a covert 13 Billion dollar industry that coincidentally also began at the time of the Attica uprisings.
Suffice it to say, a great deal of systemic inequality and abuse happens in this land where “all are created equal.” The genius of Nelson’s ATTICA is that the audience witnesses exactly how this brutality occurs in a toxic brew of power, White Supremacy and a prison industrial complex that led all the way to the Nixon White House.
Towards the end of ATTICA VP Rockefeller tells Nixon, “We were able to pick off either from the wall or as our men went in, the men who had the knives at the throat of the hostages. And they did a fabulous job.”
Only it isn’t true.
It’s a statement the audience knows to be false since early on in ATTICA hostages testify to the camera that they are being treated well. No throats were slit by Black inmates as was suggested by a complicit Rockefeller and media. Nelson reveals that all of the 39 Black inmates and White hostages killed were shot by White State Troopers.
Nixon: “Tell me this, are these primarily Blacks that you’re dealing with?”
Rockefeller: “Oh yes, the whole thing was led by the Blacks.”
Nixon: “I’ll be darned.”
English. 2021. 118 minutes
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Ashia Lance is an educational psychologist and an award-winning screenwriter, documentarian and musician. She is a writer in the Harvardwood Writers Program and a Fall 2021 recipient of the Chao Seat for the Sagansky/Harvardwood TV Module, given by Angela Chao, CEO of Foremost Group and Co-Chair of The Asian American Foundation Advisory Council, to support Harvardwood Asian-American artists and their work.
Ashia’s directorial debut, UNDERDOGS, a short documentary about homeless dogs transformed into adoptable animals through the training efforts of prisoners, will be released in 2022.
Read Ashia’s interview with director Stanley Nelson.