“Prison Was There, But I Felt Free”

Beth Capper (University of Alberta)

The first night of the Attica Prison Rebellion draws to a close around the forty-minute mark of Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry’s documentary Attica (2021). It’s a sequence that momentarily suspends the film’s propulsive narrative. Up until this point, Attica is largely action-oriented, chronicling the chaos of the initial prison takeover, the collective organization of the incarcerated men, the creation of physical infrastructure, and the drafting of demands. Stalling this action, the film cuts to a silhouette of the iconic Attica prison tower set against a night sky with half-moon while a crooning acapella band on the soundtrack conjures an atmosphere of sheer possibility. The sequence then cuts between archival footage of congregating men raising their arms in Black Power salutes and talking head interviews with some of the still-living men recounting, in vivid detail, the feeling of that first night. Lawrence Akil Killebrew recalls the ceremonial and jubilant mood that pervaded the prison yard: “It was a festive night. I loved it. I loved it. Man, I was out in the nighttime, looking at the stars. I was drunk. I was happy.” Jorge “Che” Nieves describes how the rebellion cultivated a sense of freedom: “It was good, I felt free. You know, I mean, prison was there, but I felt free.”

The inclusion of such quotidian moments in Attica is perhaps due to Nelson and Curry’s decision to confine themselves to the five days of the September 1971 rebellion: they begin, even before the opening titles, with the instant on September 9 when incarcerated men managed to overpower prison guards, ultimately seizing control of the prison’s D-Yard. They then chronicle the following days of the rebellion, centering on negotiations between the Attica Brothers – a committee of incarcerated men elected to serve as representatives for the struggle – and the New York Commissioner of Corrections Russell G. Oswald. The film ends with an unflinching look at the state’s brutal retaliation against the rebellion on September 13, when state troopers stormed into the yard and murdered 33 unarmed incarcerated men and 10 correctional officers who were being held as hostages.

From one perspective, the film’s limited narrative scope might be viewed as its weakness. Nelson and Curry spend little time situating the uprising in relation to the wider contemporaneous anti-prison movement or the numerous rebellions in prisons and jails across the country that both preceded and precipitated Attica. This is despite the fact that some of the men interviewed, such as Nieves, had directly participated in political organizing at other prisons before taking part in the Attica rebellion. Nor do they spend much time exploring the aftermath of the rebellion, such as the brutal torture inflicted on (mostly Black) surviving captives by vengeful prison guards, or the state’s decades long attempt to suppress documentary evidence of the massacre. I want to suggest, however, that what Attica loses in terms of the bigger picture it gains by slowing down so as to dwell on the new modes of being and relation that the rebellion instantiated.

Most reactions to Attica will undoubtedly center on its grueling depiction of state-sanctioned murder. This is understandable, especially since Attica’s haunting final chapter is the part of the film that seems to speak most directly to ongoing instances of anti-Black police terror, such as the moment when the men recount how state troopers told them to put their hands up and then shot them, sometimes at point blank range. However, Attica’s power is also derived from its insistence that the rebellion be understood as more than the massacre. This approach resonates with abolitionist theorist Orisanmi Burton’s contention that, in remembering Attica, we must refuse to allow “the violence and abuse to overshadow…the radical and proto-revolutionary dimensions” of the rebellion.

Attica devotes half of its nearly two-hour run-time to the first two days of the uprising, a focus that enables audiences to appreciate what an incredible collective and organizational feat the men achieved. The film shows how, for instance, during the first day, men who had been made to do “the reproductive labor of the prison” redirected these labors to forge a space of insurgent social reproduction. Drawing on their collective knowledge, the men created an infrastructure to support and sustain the rebellion by constructing makeshift tents for sleeping, a latrine to manage sewage, and a medical station and outdoor kitchen. This social infrastructure was also accompanied by the creation of a political infrastructure, and the film details how men organized themselves into voting blocs to elect representatives, invited a committee of observers from outside of the prison to oversee negotiations with the state, and demanded that the media be given access to the yard to document the rebellion. Yet Attica is not simply a film about what the men did, but also about what it means to participate in a collective struggle for liberation and to be forever changed by it. Attica is thus edited to reconstruct a sense of what it is to see, hear, and be in rebellion, overlaying former prisoners’ retellings with sound effects, such as blaring sirens, and noises culled from archival footage.

Burton has insightfully argued that a radical reading of the Attica prison rebellion would treat the rebellion itself as a demand. “What they did once they created that space for themselves… was to actually build a smaller version of a different kind of world. People talk about the Attica demands. I think that’s actually the demand.” Nelson and Curry’s film, at times, seems to articulate such a vision of the rebellion, allowing us to glimpse how the men radically reconfigured the spatial confines of the prison to approximate a kind of freedom. But Attica too often contains the rebellion within a reformist framework that reduces the prisoners’ demands on the state to a plea to be simply treated as human. In these moments, Attica resembles what Brett Story has called “a humanizing prison cinema,” locating the “problem” of the prison in the particular cruelties of its dehumanizing tactics rather than in its very existence.

In this way, Attica seems to waver between reformist and abolitionist interpretations of the rebellion, a tension that is exemplified in the two competing statements that conclude the film. In the film’s final interview before the credits, Clarence Jones, a member of the observers’ committee, says gravely and deliberately to the camera, “It didn’t have to be that way.” Jones is right: the massacre that happened at Attica should never have happened. But the past tense of Jones’ reflection positions Attica as a singular instance of state brutality and betrays a lingering hope that the carceral state’s response might have been different. By contrast, as the credits begin to roll, we return to Nieves, who offers a different interpretation, invoking both the past and present tense of struggles against the carceral state: “There’s no justice. There was never justice.” The double tense that comprises Nieves’ articulation places Attica within a longer continuum of carceral violence. And it also suggests that justice remains an impossibility within the parameters of the contemporary carceral order. Meanwhile, as Nieves speaks, the acapella song that scored the footage of that first night in the yard returns, transporting us back to that moment and the freedom dreams that Attica stirred and continues to stir today.

“Attica’s Brutal Archive”

Alex Johnston (Seattle University)

Stanley Nelson’s Attica (2021) can be read as one half of a diptych, along with his 2015 film, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, reflecting the documentarian’s attempt to preserve, archive, narrativize, and grapple with the messy late chapters of the American Civil Rights Movement. This was a moment when the zeitgeist of the movement had shifted from the south to the north and west, from the lunch counter sit-ins and non-violent direct action Nelson explored in his earlier films, Freedom Riders (2010) and Freedom Summer (2014), to the Black Panthers’ advocacy for armed self-defense and the prisoners’ uprisings at Attica and other penal institutions around the country. This later period, and especially the Attica uprising, in all of its muddy bloody brutality, has always sat uncomfortably within the hegemonic liberal narratives of progress projected upon the Civil Rights Movement, distilled most famously by Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” By extension, when traditional documentary approaches – such as talking head interviews and archival images – have been used to represent the Civil Rights Movement, most notably in Blackside’s paradigmatic PBS miniseries, Eyes on the Prize, (1987-1990), there has been a struggle to adequately convey the depraved state violence at Attica and to offer a meaning, lesson, or satisfying historical context for the events of 1971. While mostly adhering to these traditional approaches, Nelson’s unyielding third-act deployment of a cascade of archival images documenting the gruesome aftermath of the prison’s recapture by New York State police officers, provides Attica with the visceral force needed to overcome the challenge of conveying the nihilism that marked the crushing of the uprising.

Until that third act, the generally staid representational approach risks tamping down engagement with the film’s weighty subject matter, standing almost at odds with the freneticism, urgency, and high stakes of the history being depicted. Nelson’s interviewees (who include former Attica prisoners, family members of guards and staff who were held as hostages during the uprising, community observers, journalists, political figures, and a national guardsman) are by turns compelling, articulate, and emotive. However, the competent yet unremarkable nature of the visual presentation of the interviews limits their affective impact. The corresponding archival imagery mostly illustrates what interviewees are saying, rather than immersing us in the action or expressing something about Attica and its legacy that can’t be articulated through language.

One notable exception to this approach, however, is Nelson’s intrusive use of archival sound in the film’s opening sequence, specifically in relation to the present-day interviews. As the film’s title appears on screen, we are summoned back to the past by the shrill undulations of Attica’s emergency sirens, announcing the kickoff of the events of 1971. Rather than quickly fading out, the sirens persist throughout the opening sequence, a confrontational sonic counterpoint to the present-day images and voices of the interviewees. This inversion of the standard technique of interviewee audio playing under archival materials suggests something of the continuing impact of the past on the present. (Nelson employs the same strategy to even greater effect during the bloody retaking of the prison.) Rather than the archive illustrating the interviewees’ words, (and by extension, being determined and contained by them), here the force of the past in haunting and shaping the present is expressed via the siren’s auratic indexicality. It is a powerful yet subtle reminder that the structures and systems that produced this violence persist into the present day.

Black and white image of police holding guns on inmates during Attica prison riot
“The grotesque and brutal retaking of the prison”

Less subtle is Nelson’s use of a multitude of archival images (both still and moving, color and black-and-white) to produce an unflinching depiction of the grotesque and brutal retaking of the prison. Attica’s final act mirrors that of the event itself: a charnel house of brutalized bodies, both black and white, (though mostly black) strewn in pools of blood and mud, mangled and disfigured, riddled with bullet holes, and contorted and bent in unnatural ways. Photos and footage of the survivors are hardly less disturbing, showing scores of naked men crawling prone through a trench used as a latrine, or sitting, standing, and marching in chaotic rows, their hands behind their heads, a dull look of terror on many of their faces. (One interviewee says the scene reminded him of “African-Americans being herded onto slave ships.”)

Images of the dead at Attica return in the closing titles and credits. A series of titles tells us of two legal settlements with the state of New York: a 2005 settlement with family members of Attica hostages who were killed by police during the retaking of the prison, and a 2000 settlement with family members of the prisoners murdered by police, and with prisoners tortured in the aftermath of the uprising. (In neither settlement did the state admit to any wrongdoing at Attica.) Following a brief clip of two Attica prisoners, David Brosig and Frank “Big Black” Smith, happily embracing upon hearing of the settlement, Nelson immediately cross-fades to a montage of graphic color photographs of the dead at Attica. In voiceover, former prisoner George Che Nieves weighs in on the settlement: “There was no justice. All we got was money.” Here, Nelson intentionally undermines even the small measure of closure offered by the settlements. In so doing, he appears to gesture towards the unresolvable nature of Attica, the fact that the profound inhumanity on display there can never be reconciled with foundational ideas of America’s fundamental goodness.

Nelson is to be applauded for this. And yet, by ending on the carnage, there is no space for the film to consider either the persistence of that inhumanity in the present-day prison system or to highlight the political awakening that Attica fomented. In fact, it resulted in radical (and in some cases, radically hopeful) prisoner-led experiments in re-imagining the carceral domain. (For examples, see Jamie Bissonette’s, When the Prisoners Ran Walpole, and Ethan Hoffman and John McCoy’s Concrete Mama.) While commendably denying a sense of closure or catharsis, then, Attica also neglects to grapple with, or even articulate, the continuing legacy of the events of 1971. It is film as post-mortem: detailed, comprehensive, and full of viscera, yet solely focused on the facts of the case.

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