“Some people died, some were crippled, some were psychologically damaged for life.”
The story unfolds in Attica, N.Y. Right off the bat, the riot starts. Pained prisoners pay tribute to their prolonged racial persecution by taking a stand; they take hostages, attempt to negotiate for their cause, refuse to compromise and burn fiercely for equality. Directors Stanley Nelson (“Lynching Postcards: Token of a Great Day”) and Traci A. Curry’s (“Boss: The Black Experience in Business”) bold choice to open the film at the peak of the riot’s chaos certainly grabbed my attention and didn’t let it go. But the intensity of the documentary only escalated from that point onward, never shying away from any difficult or disturbing details. The cause of the protest was the racist treatment of the prisoners, an extremely heavy topic to discuss. It may even be unpleasant at times to view firsthand how this treatment affected people, but I believe it is a necessity for everyone to see. This documentary is not meant to make you feel good; it’s meant to anger you, to make you stand up and fight for what’s right.
Nelson and Curry go into painstaking detail on the abuse and mistreatment by the guards in the Attica Correctional Facility leading up to the 1970s, specifically toward the prisoners of color. Often referred to as “the last stop” prison for the maximum security and troubled inmates (as stated in the documentary), Attica’s corrupt conditions were completely exposed in tell-all interviews spanning throughout the documentary. The directors make a powerful statement by overlaying interviewees’ personal testimonies over disturbing clips dating back to the riot. This narrates the clips as extremely tense and hostile and creates the perfect build-up to the catharsis of the riot itself. Though the film focuses on the prisoners’ mistreatment, I also thought it was an interesting choice to conduct interviews with the other point of view: the guards’ families. The contrast between interviewing the families of the deceased guards taken hostage and the prisoners is a bold contrast, but not one that takes away from the central theme of the guards’ racism. It also displays the ripple effect of exactly how many people were emotionally wounded by the prisoner-guard division at Attica Correctional Facility.
Aside from these additional points, the directors make their overall message clear: people of color were met with much more malice than white people, justifying the deadly riot. A prisoner commented that “the only thing that was right was being white.” Staggering, completely blunt comments of this caliber were spread throughout the documentary. The discomfort of these comments is meant to invoke anger in the audience and rightfully defend the riot’s intensity and hostility. The testimonies from the prisoners often made me recoil in my seat and sent chills down my spine. But above all else, the most unforgettable details were the completely uncensored images depicting the aftermath of the riot and the manner in which the prisoners were treated. The directors made a skillful choice by placing these graphic images toward the end of the documentary, paired with statistics of the prisoners’ casualties. The documentary ended, and I was filled with warranted anger that turned into a passion for change. And with the film’s astoundingly high ratings, I can safely say I wasn’t alone. Viewers were devastatingly haunted by the documentary and the injustice it eloquently exposed. “Attica” is up for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and the power it holds over viewers makes it a worthy candidate for winning.
In light of exposing the division between the white guards and the predominantly Black prisoners of color, “Attica” also tells the story of coming together in solidarity. Nelson himself accounts that the prisoners “refused to eat, and it’s not only the Black prisoners but it’s the white prisoners and the Puerto Rican prisoners. And that was really different because one of the things the prison system did was separate the prisoners by race and kind of pitted one race against the other.” Even though the riot occurred over 50 years ago, Nelson and Curry do a great job of relating the documentary to society’s race struggles today and to the power of unity. For this reason, the film is a must-see, as the unknown details of the riot are revolutionary. Ultimately, “Attica” is a grueling watch, but completely enthralling and societally groundbreaking.
Daily Arts Writer Zara Manna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.