Nov 5, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Film revisits deadly Attica uprising 50 years later

Black inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility give the black power salute while Commissioner R.G. Oswald negotiates with leaders of the takeover in 1971.

Black inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility give the black power salute after a takeover protesting prison conditions in 1971. Photo: Bettmann / Contributor via Getty images

A new documentary is re-examining the structural racism that led to the Attica uprisings — one of the most violent prison riots in U.S. history.

The big picture: Marking the 50th anniversary of the prison rebellion, Showtime will premiere on Friday "Attica," a film that uses interviews with survivors and once discarded archival footage.

  • Directed by veteran filmmaker Stanley Nelson and award-winning producer Traci A. Curry, the documentary shows how tensions between the largely Black inmate population and abusive white guards boiled over into violence amid national racial tensions.
  • The whole nation watched as negotiations between inmates and officials collapsed and Republican New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller sent in state police resulting in a massacre of 29 inmates and 10 hostages.
  • It was the deadliest violence Americans had inflicted on each other in a single day since the Civil War.

Details: "Attica," also available for streaming, recasts the 1971 story through the eyes of the family of guards, former inmates, negotiators, and journalists.

  • Curry told Axios she and Nelson tracked down tossed video footage of television coverage of the riots. Journalists at the time had been allowed into the taken-over prison by rebellious inmates but some footage later ended up in the trash.
  • Inmates told filmmakers about horrible conditions at Attica from the lack of health care to less than a $1-a-day worth of meals to regular and unconstitutional abuse by white guards against Black and Puerto Rican prisoners in the New York correctional facility.
  • Uncovered footage shows state police using racist language before storming the gates to retake the prison.

The intrigue: Nelson, who has directed documentaries about Jazz legend Miles Davis and the Black Panthers, was 20 when he saw the uprisings unfold on national television like the rest of the nation.

  • "I remember when they went in and people were killed. It was just this kind of sinking feeling that, 'oh, no, no, no...' because it was the worst possible outcome," he told Axios.
  • Pioneering Black journalist John Johnson, then an ABC News correspondent, covered the riot and the violent suppression. He broke down at the scene on air and talks in the film about the emotional toll of the events.

What they're saying: "I think I have realized that (the film) opened a window to empathy for people who are in prisons that I may not have necessarily had before," said Curry, who was born after events at Attica.

Don't forget: Nine years later, Latino and Black inmates at the New Mexico State Penitentiary near Santa Fe rioted over conditions and replaced Attica as the most violent prison uprising in U.S. history.

  • Both riots resulted in improved prison conditions nationwide.

Further reading: "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" turns 50

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