Back in the ’60s and ’70s, when the press was first discovering itself as “media,” there were any number of events — standoffs, uprisings, mass gatherings, cataclysms — that the new media world, transmitting and shaping the reality of those events, made all the more unprecedented. George Wallace, in 1963, standing in a schoolhouse doorway at the University of Alabama to block desegregation. The Chicago demonstrations of 1968. The Munich Olympics massacre. The Patty Hearst kidnapping and its nuttier-than-fiction heiress-on-the-run aftermath. The hijackings. Woodstock and Jonestown.
It’s no wonder that a lot of Americans thought the country was falling apart — and in many ways it was, because it needed to. Old systems and corruptions were cracking up. The dam of American conformity and obedience had burst, and what came pouring through was an unruly blend of freedom and violence and exaltation and chaos.
“Attica,” Stanley Nelson’s stirring, scalding documentary about the 1971 Attica prison uprising, is an essential film that can now stand as a definitive vision of that epochal event. Drawing from a staggering array of footage that has never been seen before, Nelson puts the event together, moment by moment, day by day, with a clarifying view of its place in history and an empathy that extends to every person onscreen: prisoners and guards, officials and relatives, politicians and observers, the reporters who came and recorded it all. We see every point-of-view; the presentation isn’t so much “incendiary” as novelistic. And in interviews with close to a dozen of the surviving prisoners today, Nelson nails down an extraordinary oral history of rage, fear, brotherhood, humiliation, yearning, and tragedy. The movie pulls us into the heart of an American revolt that turned into an American calamity.
In September of 1971, the uprising at Attica was the largest prison rebellion the United States had ever seen. It began on a note of desperate idealism and was fueled, for a day or two, by a growing sense of liberation. The prisoners at Attica, a maximum-security correctional facility in upstate New York, didn’t plan a riot — it unfolded spontaneously, organically. But it was like a flame set to kindling that had been drying, and rotting, for too many years. Attica was a hellhole, even for a prison. It was an end-of-the-line place, run on fear and institutionalized abuse. A roll of toilet paper, or a change of bedsheets, had to last you a month. Where was the toothpaste? The food was abysmal; Muslims were denied the right to worship and were fed pork. Teams of guards would come in at night to take out a prisoner they had a problem with and beat him.
The guards, who lived in the town of Attica (where the only jobs available were dairy farming or working at the prison), were rural white small-towners. The prison population was 70 percent Black and Hispanic, many of them coming from the inner city. “What could go wrong?” asks the aging-hippie lawyer Joe Heath with rueful irony. In the movie, many make a point of how that essential cultural disconnect fed the tumult at Attica. Adding to the slow boil of tension were the revolutionary energies of the era. Many of the inmates had read Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver, had drunk in the prison drama of the Soledad Brothers, the insurrectionary rhetoric of the Black Panthers. They were primed to rise up.
Nelson recreates the logistics of the revolt with suspenseful exactitude. Attica didn’t look like other prisons; it was a massive divided fortress that, from certain angles, resembled a castle. The uprising began with the knocking down of a gate in the section known as Times Square (a jerry-rigged mold from the ’30s gave way), at which point several prisoners attacked a guard named Billy Quinn and took his keys. He was severely beaten, but saved by four Muslim inmates who got a mattress and wheeled him out (we see the footage). “After they got Quinn’s keys,” recalls one prisoner, “they opened up all four sides and said, ‘We got the joint!’ That began to be the battle cry.” For a while, the raised-fist spirit of the prisoners was visibly stoked. Yet without weapons, they had only so much control. They retreated to the D-Yard, surrounded by guards standing on decks with guns. Most of the prisoners wore scarves or masks to hide their identities.
Out of a total prison population of 2,200, approximately 1,200 inmates took part in the revolt. They took 30 guards hostage, and they demanded that reporters and TV news cameras be let into the prison. Those cameras changed the game. “Now the prisoners had a worldwide audience,” says one observer. They used it as leverage. The ABC News reporter John Johnson describes the “completely surreal” quality of walking through the yard (where he greeted men he’d known from Bed-Stuy and Harlem). And the prisoners had something new: the hope that comes from being seen. We watch one of their leaders, Elliot “L.D.” Barkley, a young man in wire-framed glasses with just 90 days left in his sentence, read a manifesto in the yard. Describing “the unmitigated oppression wrought by the racist administrative network of this prison throughout the years,” he declares, with calm power, “We are men! We are not beasts. And we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such.”
The prisoners negotiated with New York’s Commissioner of Corrections, Russell Oswald, who we see lumber into the prison and sit down at the table, a burly, uncomfortable-looking man who’s like a penny-ante J. Edgar Hoover. The prisoners presented him with 30 demands, most about prison conditions; they also sought amnesty for their actions during the riot. Oswald cooperated, promising them more or less all of it, but talked a different game outside the pressure cooker of the prison than he did inside. It was as if he didn’t realize the prisoners could see what he’d said on TV.
Then the worst possible thing happened: Billy Quinn, the guard who had first been attacked, died from his injuries. Amnesty for the rioters would now mean amnesty for murder, and it was therefore off the table. We see the prisoners meeting with a group of 30 “observers,” including the New York Times’ Tom Wicker, the counterculture attorney William Kunstler, and the Amsterdam News editor Clarence Jones. This was a prestigious and influential lot to have as mediators. The inmates, lighting up their demands on a media billboard, had put the U.S. prison system itself on trial. A few of the observers pleaded with New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to meet with the prisoners. In a better world, that’s what would have happened.
But time was running out on the Attica rebels. The media sword that was their greatest weapon came back to haunt them. For this was the apex of the “law and order” era, presided over by President Richard Nixon, who had been elected largely on that basis. (You could make a good case that the 1968 Chicago demonstrations sealed Nixon’s victory.) Gov. Rockefeller wanted to be president, but the word on Rockefeller was that he was soft on crime. He was on the phone with Nixon, who denounced any gesture that would signify sympathy with the prisoners. (We hear tapes of the conversations between Rockefeller and Nixon, which play like bonus tracks from the Nixon tapes’ greatest hits. Nixon: “Did Wicker — was he recommending amnesty?” Rockefeller: “Oh, yes.” Nixon: “Oh, God.”)
When you see what finally happened at Attica — and nothing I’ve encountered lets you see it the way that “Attica” does — it is now, 50 years later, with an awareness that makes the shocking violence of it look all the more like a plan that was there from the beginning. For a few days, Oswald and his correctional officers seemed to have their hands tied, but they always knew the Plan B they could reach for — the one marked “Excessive force.” And they reached for it.
It was obscene. In grainy black-and-white police-surveillance video that now takes on a ghostly poetic horror, we see footage of a helicopter flying over the walls and lowering itself toward the yard, unleashing a cloud of CO2 pepper gas. The prisoners, blinded and choking, were disarmed, making them sitting ducks for a massacre. And that’s what it was — a massacre topped off, in a number of cases, by torture. We hear the guns pop-pop-popping like popcorn, and the film shows us photographs of the aftermath; they are gruesome to behold. But it also reveals the devastating power of Nelson’s documentary storytelling. He shows us how the prisoners became martyrs, with a glint of heroism in their refusal of heroism. And when the film tells us that 10 of the hostages died, it’s done in a way that leaves the audience wondering how that could have happened. The revelation that follows is a gut-punch: a testament to how “law and order” can itself become anarchy.