Ashia Lance Interviews Stanley Nelson
Co-Directors Stanley Nelson and Traci Curry brilliantly reshape race narrative in ATTICA by giving voice to the unheard minorities and disrupting the dominant historical narrative. It is a strategy that Nelson has used in his many films including THE MURDER OF EMMETT TILL, JONESTOWN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PEOPLE’S TEMPLE and MILES DAVIS: BIRTH OF THE COOL.
Photo by Corey Nickols
This approach has led to Nelson being the recipient of an Emmy, a MacArthur Fellowship, and Fellowships at the American Film Institute and Columbia University. He was presented with the National Humanities Medal by President Obama in 2014.
Stanley Nelson was interviewed while ATTICA opened the San Francisco International Film Festival’s “Doc Stories” on November 4. 2021. (Some responses have been condensed for clarity.) The movie has just been shortlisted in the 94th Oscars® Feature Documentary category. ATTICA can be seen on Showtime.
I noticed in a 2015 Harvard interview that you were really excited about possibly making ATTICA. What drew you to the project at that time?
I think that Attica is just an important story for understanding the United States. It’s not only about criminal justice; it’s about race, it’s about power against the powerless. You know it can almost be taken as kind of the end of the 1960s, that we are now entering into a new era of law and order at all costs, and I think that that’s why it’s so important.
I’m very proud of the film. I mean, when you imagine doing a project or film, you can’t know that the faces of the people that you’re going to interview will be so incredible. What they tell you, the stories they tell you, are just unforgettable in the footage that you’re going to find. So, I’m just really, really incredibly proud of this film. Because I think it works as the Attica story, but it also works as kind of a thriller and has this other life as film, and that I’m very proud of too.
Arthur Harrison was a 21-year-old inmate at the time of the Attica revolt.
AL: What inspired you to tell the story of Attica for the 50th Anniversary of the uprising?
SN: I think that hearing about it at the time, feeling like the story never was really told. There had to be so much more to the story than I knew, and the general public knew. There were people who were still around that we could interview but they were getting older, and this was maybe the last best chance to tell their story. I also knew that there was some footage that had not been seen before.
AL: I was surprised as a viewer to see just how much careful thought the inmates had put in before the uprising happened. What surprised you most while making the film?
SN: So many things really surprised me. The prisoners uniting in the yard, the fact that they were they were not united before that, and in many ways, they were separated by race and ethnicity by the guards on purpose. The white prisoners, as one white guy tells us, had certain advantages. So obviously, the other prisoners are gonna resent that. And then in the yard, they realize that they have to be united, that they’re all prisoners, and they’re all in the same boat. And they unite and then, as you mentioned, they elect leaders, and they elect spokespeople to talk for them. That’s just incredible and it’s a different story of Attica then we normally think about for those who have given it any thought at all.
I think the other thing is the racism, what I call a casual racism that rears its head over and over again. The giving of the white prisoners before the rebellion extra privilege. As they (the guards) take over the prison they yell “white power.”
The fact that they are constantly calling the prisoners, you know, n***s. The fact that Rockefeller and Nixon have phone calls that luckily are recorded, and that we hear the first words out of Nixon’s mouth after the massacre, “Was it the blacks? Was it the blacks?” [who were shot] and then unbelievably, he asked, “Were any white people killed?” It’s the President of the United States and so I think it’s really shocking.
Sometimes I think about how really shocking this is to me, and to other people of color, because they don’t talk like that around me! I can’t hear what they say when I’m not in the room, except at times like this when Richard Nixon for whatever his sick reason is, records the conversation.
But when Billy Quinn the guard died, who had been beaten on the first days as the prisoners first took over the prison, we know from the very beginning that that was a turning point in the story. And we wanted to construct the film in a way that you understood that.
AL: This film is part of what I see as a trilogy, where when the basic constitutional rights are stripped away for any reason, it becomes horrific. We see that with the prisoners in ATTICA, with guardianship with FRAMING BRITNEY SPEARS, and we also see in 13th how the loophole of the 13th Amendment has led to human rights violations and the US having 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. What do you think these violations of Constitutional rights mean for America?
SN: I think in terms of the prison system, one of the things that ATTICA the film makes you think about is just how much intellect, just how much people power, just how much creativity is taken away by putting the 2 million people in prison. Hopefully, by seeing their faces and hearing their stories in the film, you start to think about them as human and in their humanity.
We didn’t do a lot of other pre-interviews or talk to a lot of people. They were all great, and they’re all so expressive, and so moving about what happened. And those are the people that are incarcerated. And the other thing I think we have to think about is how, from the time they were born their whole lives are kind of geared and focused towards them going to Attica, to them going to prison. There’s no way almost for them that it could end up except to go to Attica. Some of that is the school to prison pipeline. Their lives were being funneled into the prison system from bad schools, bad health care, being poor, being Black in America. Everything was kind of funneled to them being pushed into the penal system. What a waste is that over 2 million people are going to be in prison this evening, as we go to bed.
AL: Do you see any remedies?
SN: Well, I have to say that, you know, I’m a filmmaker, I’m not a prison rights expert. I am a filmmaker who made a film about prisons, but I think one of the things that we can do is start to think about the humanity. Start to think about prisoners as humans. Start to think about what could be a better way, as you said, than to have 25% of the world’s prisoners in this country. How might we do this better?
There’s a line in the film that can’t help but move people where the first night out there, and in the yard one of the guys says it’s the first time he has seen the night sky in 22 years, and it’s something that just makes you think about, what the heck are we doing? And maybe that’s all a film can do, is make us think a little bit, and start to make a lot of different people think about the prison system.
AL: You mentioned you’re interested in the beginnings of films. Why this particular beginning?
SN: We wanted to drop you inside of Attica. We have a little section in the film that we call the flashback, where we talk about the town, talk about the all-white prison guards, and we talk about the conditions in the prison and all of that.
But it became much more powerful when we started by dropping you into the middle of the rebellion. And we do that for, like, 15 minutes. And then, it’s so exciting, you know, it’s like you’re caught up in it, and then hopefully you’re thinking, “Well, wait a minute.“ Then we go back and tell you why the prisoners rebelled.
I think that we wanted in some ways to structure this day as a thriller, we wanted you to both have a film that people who knew nothing at all about Attica would understand, and that people who kind of, you know, thought they knew something about Attica, would also understand it and be moved by it.
AL: Right. So I think a recurring theme is of two Americas? Do you think it’s gotten worse or gotten better?
SN: No, I mean, it’s an interesting question. If you talk about prisons, in general, I don’t think they’ve gotten a lot better. They might have gotten two rolls of toilet paper per month instead of one, the food might have gotten better. But about 2 million people are incarcerated. I heard the figure the other day that 200,000 or more were incarcerated in 1971, in Attica. But now it’s increased tenfold. So it’s part of that, and if you ask about the country in general, I’m not sure.
In some ways this country has gotten better — there are now Black anchors on TV and there was a President in the United States for a minute. So in some small ways things have improved, but for the majority of Black and Brown people their lives are probably pretty similar to what they were in ’71.
You know, there are huge lobbies for prison guards and others that lobby to keep building prisons, and again, to keep things the same as it is. Prisons all over this country like Attica are built in the middle of nowhere. So these towns, small towns like Attica, New York, thrive and survive on the jobs prisons create. And at the same time, you take the prisons out of being anywhere near our sight. We don’t have to think about the humans that are incarcerated behind bars in those prisons, and it’s kind of a whole system that has to change.
AL: Absolutely. I’m aware of how guardianship can be used to perpetuate slavery, where people are labor trafficked in states like North Carolina, hidden and isolated because of their disabilities and kept in situations where they financially benefit the state. Do you have any solutions for this divide that seems perpetuated through the 13th amendment, incarceration, and guardianship?
SN: I’m not a prison reform expert, I’m a filmmaker. But I think that what film can do, hopefully, is make you think about prisons and make you think about Attica. We can think about where we’re going into the future and, and hopefully, at least that’s a start.
AL: What is your next project going to be?
SN: We’re finishing up an hour-long film, called BECOMING FREDERICK DOUGLASS for PBS, and another hour about Harriet Tubman.
ATTICA is currently streaming on Showtime. Though a subscription is required, a 30-day free trial is offered. Details here.
Stanley Nelson is a documentary filmmaker whose work combines compelling narratives with rich and deeply researched historical detail, shining new light on both familiar and underexplored aspects of the American past. In addition to honors for individual films, Nelson and his body of work have garnered every major award in the industry, such as the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (2002), the National Humanities Medal (2013), and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (2016). Nelson co-founded, with Marcia Smith, Firelight Media, a non profit production company dedicated to using historical film to advance contemporary social justice causes.
His 24 award-winning movies as a director have included FREEDOM RIDERS, THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION, TELL THEM WE ARE RISING: THE STORY OF BLACK COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES, FREEDOM SUMMER and CRACK: COCAINE, CORRUPTION & CONSPIRACY. Nelson has partnered with Independent Lens on a new trilogy of films that will chronicle pivotal moments in American history driven by Black artists, cultural leaders, and everyday people. He will direct and produce the documentaries comprising “America Revisited II.” The films will span topics such as the rise of funk music, the evolution of African American art, and the deeply rooted, vibrant history of Harlem.
Explore the Firelight Media website.
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.
After viewing ATTICA you might want to go deeper.
In this conversation recorded on September 24, 2020 Stanley Nelson and Marcia Smith discuss their own mentors and influences, their collaborative practice, and how Firelight has become a premier destination for nonfiction cinema by and about communities of color.
In the early 1970s comedian Richard Pryor moved to Berkeley and spoke out about Attica.
You can now listen to a compilation of Pryor’s poetry and comments made during the Attica prison rebellion including RICHARD PRYOR ON ATTICA, produced by Alan Farley and the comedy album he produced with Farley, “The Button-Down Mind of Russell Oswald,” about the Attica uprising. Sensitive language. –LISTEN TO THIS BROADCAST: KPFA, 17 May 1972.”
You can also listen to several other Pacifica Radio audio documentaries including Bruce Soloway’s interviews with former Attica inmates involved with the prison rebellion, attorney William Kunstler discussing his involvement in Attica prison inmate defense, and the similarities of Attica to the Wounded Knee occupation, and an examination of the news blackout which followed the storming of Attica prison.