We are wired from a young age to view good and evil in the most basic terms. Cops are inherently good people and criminals are bad. What happens to a criminal in jail is not as important as celebrating those who brought them to justice. It is this indoctrination and lack of empathy that has not only blinded many to the impact of systemic racism in policing, but also given passage to some of the most atrocious misuses of power. One needs to look no further than the 1971 Attica Correctional Facility uprising for an example of this. Unpacking the events that lead to the largest prison riots in U.S. history, Stanley Nelson’s Attica is a harrowing and timely reminder of what happens when basic human rights are trampled on in the name of law and order.
Dropping viewers into the story just as long-standing tensions have finally boiled over, Nelson shows that the riot was a repudiation of years of human rights abuses. Subjected frequently to gang beatings from guards at night, being fed rancid food, having no access to a prison education system, and forced to survive months with limited access to toiletries and clean sheets, it was only a matter of time before the prisoners reached their breaking point. Making matters worse was the fact that all the guards where white and the prison population was 70% Black and brown. This meant that the white inmates got preferential treatment when it came to who got more food and better jobs. It was clear that the inmates were not viewed as men, but mere animals.
In observing the former inmates that Nelson interviews reflecting on the standoff, one immediately understands why those brief moments of freedom meant so much. By taking prison guards as hostages, they forced those in power to view them as human beings for once. During the prisoners’ occupation of half of the facility, they created a makeshift community, one where men relied on their pre-prison skills to establish a latrine, a medical station and more. They held elections to select the individuals who could best relay their interest in negotiations with key officials, even inviting the media into so that the world could see the atrocities they were forced to endure firsthand.
As Nelson’s film effectively captures, while the world’s eyes were opening to the plight of the inmates, those on the outside of the prison, including prison guards and state police wanted nothing more than to quickly pull the blinds backdown. Pressured by President Richard Nixon, who prided himself on law and order, Governor Nelson Rockefeller gave the order to take back the prison on the fourth day of the standoff. Of course, it was not enough to simply restore order, but the guards and police wanted to send a message that the prisoners would never forget.
It is in the moments when Attica focuses on both the massacre that occurred and, the equally horrific aftermath, that the film is most disturbing. Despite knowing what is coming, one is still stunned to the core at the sheer brutality that the guards and state police displayed. This is especially painful when the film makes it clear much of the carnage could have been avoided had they taken the negotiation process more seriously. Instead, they embraced the mentality that instilling fear via excessive force is how one maintains control.
Nelson’s documentary shows how the ingrained idea of white supremacy at various levels shaped what the notion of control looked like. The shot of an officer proudly celebrating the reclaiming of the prison by screaming “white power” is not as chilling as when former ABC news reported John Johnson, who is Black, recounts how some of the guards where so deranged by racial hatred during the massacre that his own life was put in danger.
By blending archival footage with interviews with inmates, guards, reports, members of the community and more, Nelson masterfully constructs an unnerving study of a moment whose reverberations are still being felt today. It is a film that manages to knock the wind out of you even when you know the punch is coming. In a time when racism and policing is finally being placed under a larger microscope, Attica is one the year’s must-see films.