Racism and a pervasive broken prison system are explored through the lens of history in “Attica,” an unnerving documentary about the 1971 uprising at the maximum-security prison in Upstate New York. In the lead-up to the takeover, tensions were soaring between inmates and guards as prison conditions worsened. Such conditions included being relegated to up to sixteen hours a day in their cells, their mail being tampered with, almost non-existent medical, an inequitable parole system and overcrowding. Additionally, all of the guards were white to a predominately black and brown prison population who were relegated to the lowest-paid jobs and frequently harassed by the guards. On that fateful day on September 9th, the tables were turned as those same guards were taken hostage by the inmates, unharmed, but used as negotiation with state politicians.
Director, Stanley Nelson successfully presents the core grievances, the revolt, community emotions, and national reaction through never-before-seen archival footage and fascinating interviews with former inmates sharing first-hand accounts and family members of the guards/hostages. While most of the documentary is very insular, focusing on living former prisoners recounting their angst and other emotions prior to and after the revolt, Nelson uses broader perspectives occasionally as well. In the early 70s, there was a burgeoning push for prison reforms, and activists such as Angela Davis and Stokley Carmichael were outspoken and relentless in equating the U.S. justice system and prison conditions to slavery. George Jackson who himself was sentenced to life over a ten-dollar gas station robbery, soon became a prison advocate and a leader for his fellow inmates, extolling the harsh realities of life behind bars and the need for political reform around the issues.
Nelson’s film puts such activists and philosophies of the time in the context of the uprising, as well as the state and national politics involved, with quotes from the then New York governor, Nelson Rockefeller, and President Richard Nixon. In some ways, this is literally a hard film to watch, but an important part of recent history to know and witness. Most startling, but significant is the unflinching camera on the mostly black and brown dead bodies in the wake of the bloody massacre- 39 inmates gunned down by state troopers at the command of the governor and the approval of the president. No member of law enforcement was prosecuted for the killings during the retaking of Attica. It is to this day the bloodiest prison riot in history. 50 years later, the prison problems persist. “Attica” the documentary, coupled with current social justice activism and countless contemporary books chronicling the ongoing cycle of police brutality and the need for prison reform, serve as reminders of how little has changed and how precious is the accountability of justice.
“Attica” premieres at the San Francisco Doc Stories Festival on Nov. 4; Airing on Showtime on November 6.