In a climactic scene in Sidney Lumet‘s 1975 masterpiece Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino‘s bank-robbing Sonny Wortzik protests the encroaching police with cries of “Attica!” For those who were unaware of the word’s significance, the fervor created in the scene effectively hinted at something malicious. And indeed, he was referring to a real life incident which occurred in 1971, when Attica prison erupted into a brutal rebellion. 50 years later, director Stanley Nelson recalls Attica once again with a meticulous deconstruction of the bloodiest prison riot in US history.
Attica recounts the events surrounding a fateful five days in the history of upstate New York, when the dissatisfied prisoners of Attica Correctional Facility initiated an uprising. Protesting the dehumanizing environment, they stormed the gates and captured several prison workers as hostages. As thousands of men assembled in the prison yard, they invited those in power to hear their demands. The list included religious freedom, hygienic living conditions, protection from racially-motivated brutality and amnesty from further prosecution after the takeover. And as they sought to secure these basic human rights, the event captured widespread attention. But negotiations quickly deteriorated in an era when “law and order” trumped any other concerns for justice.
Indeed, it hardly comes as a surprise that this rebellion eventually became a bloody massacre. But Nelson takes his time in arriving at that violent conclusion, garnering testimonials from former prisoners, archival footage and essential facts to tell the full story of the events. Notably, Nelson examines the differences among the prisoners, juxtaposing the striking images of thousands of men standing in solidarity. From the group of Muslims who attempted to save an injured guard, to the rare White prisoner who confesses to the privileges he enjoyed, Nelson digs deeper beyond the monolithic notions applied to an unruly population of Black and Brown men. Meanwhile, interviews with family members of the hostages further complicate our perceptions of victimhood (though their tranquil residence in a “company town” funded by the prison industrial complex is inherently discomforting).
As the somber “talking heads” reflections illuminate the circumstances and consequences of the uprising, it’s the culminating footage that lands the real gut-punch. After a range of supporting characters fail to alleviate the escalating tensions, including media personnel, the Black Panthers (who Nelson previously profiled in the indelible documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution) and the New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the subsequent havoc captured on camera leaves a devastating impact.
The prevailing tragedy, however, is the continued relevance of the events to contemporary society. As such, Attica is at once a time capsule of Nixon-era oppression and a timeless indictment of the foundational racism and injustice of American society. While today we may chant “Black Lives Matter” instead of Sonny’s “Attica,” the struggle remains the same.