"Attica" filmmakers on mistakes from that fateful prison riot: "The media failed the prisoners"

Stanley Nelson and Traci Curry spoke to Salon about making a Showtime documentary about the 1971 uprising

Published November 6, 2021 2:59PM (EDT)

Attica (Firelight Films)
Attica (Firelight Films)

The events at Attica Correctional Facility that began on September 9, 1971, became the largest and bloodiest prison rebellion to date. Now, 50 years after the five-day uprising — which left 29 inmates and 10 hostages dead — filmmakers Stanley Nelson and Traci Curry have made Showtime's powerful documentary "Attica" that recounts the events that lead to the riot and its deadly aftermath.

The filmmakers conduct interviews with prisoners, reporters, observers, and family members of the hostages to provide different perspectives on the event's impact. Issues of racism abound — from the all-white staff of correctional officers and the 70% Black and brown inmates, to a revealing conversation between then New York State governor Nelson Rockefeller and President Nixon. The inmates, represented by LD Barkley, were protesting that those incarcerated were subjected to inhumane conditions. There are stories about having one roll of toilet paper per month, and meals costing $0.63/day ("That's $0.21/meal—who can eat off that!?" one interviewee declares.) One white inmate confesses that his race helped him get extra meals and special treatment. In contrast, the Black Muslim inmates were denied religious freedom (and were also served pork).

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"Attica" tells the story of how the Commissioner of Corrections, Russell Oswald negotiated with the prisoners, meeting some of their demands, but he balked at providing an injunction that would grant the prisoners amnesty for their involvement in the riot. As the media covered the story (ham-fistedly as the film shows), the situation got tenser and tenser until armed law enforcement officers entered the prison and fired, killing 39 people, including 10 of the hostages. The filmmakers depict the horrific episode vividly in this compelling film. 

Nelson and Curry spoke with Salon about their essential documentary.

What do you recall about the Attica Prison Riots from when they unfolded and why did you pick this topic for a film 50 years later?

Stanley Nelson: I was about 20 when it happened. It as an extraordinary event — these prisoners have taken over a prison — what is going to happen? It unfolded day by day. We were devastated by the way it turned out. Nobody imagined that they were negotiating, or that the [police] would take it back by force and kill a whole bunch of people. I felt that this story had never really been told and that tells us something about ourselves in this country and the prison system. There were people still alive who can remember and tell the story. There were great witnesses and there was great archival footage.

Traci Curry: Attica was before my time. I knew there had been a riot, but I really didn't know much at all — certainly, not as much as I came to learn. I knew this would be a story with questions of justice, human rights, and the penal systems, and how all that is tied up with race and power, and class. This film presented an opportunity to explore it. 

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Can you talk about your approach to the various participants and the stories they told about this famous uprising? There is a lasting impact on the survivors, be it inmates, observers, or family members of victims.

Curry: It is no small thing for a person to be approached by a complete stranger and asked to recount the defining trauma of your life in great detail — over the phone, which is essentially what I was asking these people. I tried to be mindful of that. In approaching them, there were a lot of divides to overcome. The men are significantly older that I am, and not necessarily used to expressing vulnerability or emotion, certainly not with a young woman. The families are white people that come from a very different background than I do. Maybe there is some distrust there. So, a lot of the initial work was building up their trust and those relationships. Once they opened up, and were willing to talk about it, what became clear to me was that the memory of this experience was right there, just beneath the surface. But that trauma, 50 years later, was very much there for every single person, whether they were a prisoner, a family member, an observer, or one of the attorneys. It was crystalized in their memories; it was burned into their psyches. The work was to overcome the human instinct in the face of some extreme emotion — sadness or humiliation — to recoil away or lean in and stop it from happening. It was sitting with their trauma and allowing them to talk about it, and be expressive, and give them a space to talk about it in a way that was authentic.

The story is about control. The whites/guards have it; the Black prisoners temporarily get it, and then the whites get it back. I like that one prisoner explains that, "even if it costs you, you had to riot" because of how they just were being treated inhumanely. What observations do you have about power in the film? From LD Barkley to Oswald, to Rockefeller and Nixon, everyone had an agenda.  

Nelson: That's an interesting point. In some ways it's subtle and some ways, not too subtle. The prisoners were drunk with power. As Jerry Rosenberg [the prisoner's advocate] makes this speech, "We are men." it was over the top, dramatic. Maybe, if they hadn't been just a little bit drunk with power, they could have negotiated [more]. The prisoners thought they had more time. The rug was pulled out from under them. The rest was Rockefeller.

Curry: One of the most powerful things you can do is to claim control of your narrative and your story and your identity. The prisoners are some of most marginalized and silenced people. The power they define is for themselves, who they were in this moment, and what they were about. One of the things that is so fascinating to me was that inside this prison, they had to silo themselves into these groups to survive: Black, white, Muslim, Puerto Rican, political, not political. Once they saw they could create change, they don't put it aside, but subsume it and coalesce around this other identity as prisoners. They name themselves and create their own new political identity as prisoners in this moment. When you hear Nixon on this tape so eager for this to be a story about "The Blacks," to me, he is trying to wrest away what the prisoners have named and identified themselves, and he wants to make it a different narrative about the Blackness, and the criminology of Blackness, and Blackness run amok and needing to be controlled because it's worked for him — it got him elected president — and he needs the story that he want to tell about the prisoners, not the story they told about themselves, to justify what ultimately happened to them.

The situation probably could have been resolved if the negotiations were handled better; if amnesty was granted to the inmates. What thoughts do you have on this aspect of the story? Was a non-violent solution possible? 

Nelson: It would have been possible if you kept Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon out of it. I think Oswald wanted to negotiate a settlement at least for the first three days. It was a turning point when [Correctional Officer William] Quinn dies. All bets are off because someone has been murdered. It is harder to give them amnesty because of the optics; it sets a precedent. They could have done it. If they had been given amnesty, I would be confident that that would have been enough for the prisoners. They made 28 demands, and all they wanted to know is that they would not be prosecuted for things done in the rebellion. One of the things the film does is that it lays out why there is the rebelling from the beginning and that it all hinged on this thing, this amnesty. It came so close to being resolved. It didn't have to be this way.

Curry: There are so many shoulda, coulda, and what ifs. One thing you see very clearly in the film is that the men, by day three or day four are reaching their limits of endurance in this space. There are hundreds of men sharing in this confined space. They are not showering. They are relieving themselves in the same space. They are running out of food and water and patience. Some were ready to go back in. They knew there would be some level of retribution [for the riot], but no one imagined what would happen. They were in this together and they would not allow the people identified as the leadership to suffer for all of us. Amnesty was the one thing they could not let go. If there was an effort to offer something like it — charges for minor things like destruction of property — if there had been a good faith effort to engage with them meaningfully, maybe this wouldn't have happened. If Rockefeller had come — the observers were clear that they were never asking him to go inside the yard and be with the prisoners. They were saying come and see what we see, come and feel what we feel. Observers felt this tension of the people who were outside the prison. They were being told [lies that] their brothers in law enforcement and their literal brothers were being castrated and tortured. Of course, they are going to be pissed hearing this for four days. And then you put a gun in their hand and tell them to go in. What do you think was going to happen? The observers saw this. If Rockefeller saw this, you would know the inevitable outcome of sending these people in. I have a hard time believing that if there were good faith efforts to negotiate around amnesty or an attempt by Rockefeller to show he gave a damn, it wouldn't have ended the way it did.

The media became important in the story, and two Black journalists, ABC News reporter John Johnson and "Amsterdam News" publisher Clarence Jones, had some keen insights and insider perspectives. What are your thoughts on how the media covered this event?

Nelson: I'm of two minds. It was great because the media was there, and covering it, and you saw the inmates and the humanity. But ultimately, the media failed to report what was happening and stop rumors that people were being castrated. The prisoners were proud of how they were treating the hostages. The media knew that, but in some way the media really failed the prisoners.

Curry: I agree, they were there and reporting and that is why there is a film — there's footage of it. I also think that what happened at Attica as far as the media is concerned, can be instructive on how the media fails today. What the prisoners were asking for was covered and a lot of the news footage focuses on the request that they be flown to Algeria or Cuba. That is the sexiest and shiniest object on their list of demands. A shower and toilet paper are not really that exciting to make your news lead at a news show. It makes the prisoners silly and ridiculous that they think they were going to get a plane out of Attica. But that was a pie-in-the-sky, why not shoot for the moon request. It wasn't the essence of what they were asking for, and it wasn't represented well in the media. It is also instructive about the perils of access journalism, which we are wrestling with today. What happened — and the reason that the story was in the AP, the New York Times, and all the other major outlets — was because there was one voice, one spokesperson who emerged and gave the "official version" that got out there, which was that the prisoners killed 10 hostages. Very few people — and John Johnson was an exception in this regard — asked more questions. Very few people said, "I didn't see it, so I'm not going to report it just because you said it." This one guy, who was "the authority," told everyone this is what happened and that was what was reported. As we show, it was corrected when the coroner said, "I see no evidence of any of this. I see people who died of gunshot wounds." The way the primacy effect works is that the first story is the stickiest. There are people to this day who still believe the prisoners killed the hostages. 

The film's last act is particularly impressive as you depict the roiling tensions that lead to senseless killings. Obviously, the use of force was excessive and did more harm than good. Your film is a cautionary tale. What do you think we have learned from these events? Have conditions in prisons/for inmates improved or has not much/enough changed in the last half century. What is the lesson here?

Nelson: Superficially, prisons have changed. They have education programs, but that's counterbalanced by the fact that now we have 2 million people in prison. It's not a gain in the prison systems. I think that a lot has changed, and one of the things [people] want prisons to do is make people disappear and not think about them. We didn't think about people at the time of Attica, and very few people think about the fact that people are in prison today. 

Curry: Attica is directly connected to where we find ourselves in the prison system today because Nelson Rockefeller, before he becomes Vice President, feels empowered by the political currency he got off the way he handled Attica. He looked like this tough-on-crime guy. He then passes these draconian drug laws, which become the blueprint for drug laws all across the country, which then lead to the explosion of the prison population which get us where we are today. There is a direct connection. Things have gotten exponentially worse. In 2020, we see the lengths to which the state is willing to go to reassert its own power when that power is challenged and how the default setting is so often violence. Certainly not to the extreme that we saw in Attica, but we all saw on television how the law enforcement has responded to protests, and we saw what happened to the protestors outside the White House, and the President using that as a political opportunity. Which would suggest that we've learned nothing. Very little has changed since Attica.

"Attica" premieres Saturday, Nov. 6 at 9 p.m. on Showtime. Watch the trailer below via YouTube.

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By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Attica Interview Movies Showtime Stanley Nelson Traci Curry