Historians aren’t always the right voices to include in a history documentary. That turned out to be the case for “Attica,” the Showtime documentary about the five-day prison rebellion in 1971 in upstate New York that remains the deadliest event of its kind in American history. Instead of academic experts, director Stanley Nelson and co-director and producer Traci Curry turned to the people who were actually there.
“We had lined up historians, and actually we filmed one historian, and he was great. But he seemed like he was from a different world from the prisoners and the hostage families and the observers that were talking from their own personal experience,” Nelson said at the Variety & Rolling Stone Truth Seekers Summit presented by Showtime. “It made the decision really easy to avoid the historians and just go with the people that had lived it.”
One of those people was Tyrone Larkins, who explained that it took some time for him to trust that being a part of the documentary was the right decision.
“We had some good talks. Some of them was kind of rough, some of them was kind of rash. And in some cases, because of being there, a certain point of arrogance came out of me,” he said. “Because there’s certain things [that] even to this day I don’t speak on, in terms of Attica. That’s how pressing it was. It’s just the fact that it was hard. It really was. It was hard to see life and death all in the blink of an eye, in a matter of seconds.”
Eventually, though, he came around. “I must say, Traci’s a very good interviewer. I liked having discussions with her because she allowed me to go to the reservoirs of my life,” Larkins said. “We had a short discussion about my grandmother, Ray, who raised me, who was one generation away from slavery. And the things that she taught me of being a survivor. And I think all of that helped me to get through the whole prison experience period.”
Curry said that making the film during the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 helped her focus on the purpose of making the documentary.
“Yes, it is about the five days and the prisoners and the resistance. But this is also a story about power,” she said. “And about the state and about powerful institutions of the state and the lengths to which they will go to reaffirm and reinforce that power and that ‘law and order’ philosophy. Even when preserving that power means doing harm to the individuals, the American people from whom, ostensibly, that power derives.”
“One of the things that I hope comes from the film is that the prisoners and people in prison are seen as human beings. And I think you can’t help but see the film and think about how human these people are,” Nelson said.
Watch the full conversation above.