Attica (2021) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Five Days in Attica, 1971

Documentary film “Attica” looks into the uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility, New York in 1971, and it tells and shows much more than what I vaguely knew about this incident. To be frank with you, I only came to know a bit about this incident via that certain big scene in Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), and the documentary surely enlightened me a lot on why it is still notorious as a sobering reminder of how problematic the American prison system has been during last 50 years.

When the uprising suddenly happened on September 9th, 1971, it felt like something inevitable to many prisoners and guards in the facility because the mood inside the prison had been pretty tense for a while due to the growing discontent and resentment among hundreds of prisoners in the facility, who had been quite angry about their lousy condition of life in the facility. For example, they were not supplied with enough necessities such as toilet paper, and their daily meals were quite bad in terms of quality and quantity to say the least. In addition, many of prisoners were constantly abused and harassed by the guards, and the documentary sharply points out the considerable racial gap between the guards and the prisoners, who were mostly African or Hispanic Americans in contrast to those all-white guards in the facility.

After they swiftly took over the prison within several hours, they strongly demanded a number of necessary reforms to Russell G. Oswald, who was the New York Commissioner of Corrections at that time. Although lots of policemen were ready to strike down the prisoners at any point, the prisoners already held a bunch of hostages in the facility, and Oswald was willing to do some negotiation with the prisoners, but things did not go quite well for him due to his rather sloppy handling of the situation. He boldly entered the facility for his negotiation with the prisoners, but, mainly thanks to those TV reporters outside the facility, it did not take much time for the prisoners to realize that he was not that reliable, and so they subsequently demanded to negotiate with a committee consisting of a number of more reliable public figures including a prominent civil rights lawyer named William Kunstler (Yes, he was that lawyer played by Mark Rylance in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (2021)).

As several surviving committee members attest to us during their interviews, they and their fellow committee members came to empathize a lot with how angry and desperate the prisoners were, and the committee members and several representatives of the prisoners subsequently worked together more on what the prisoners really wanted. As a result, they demanded 30 things to be reformed besides the guarantee of amnesty on the uprising, and it seemed that things would work out fairy well for both the prisoners and the New York State government.

However, the situation unfortunately became far less advantageous for the prisoners when one of the injured guards eventually died not long after he was taken out of the facility. While many family members of those hostages in the facility became more concerned about the safety of their loved ones, the New York State government was more pressured to end the uprising as quickly as possible, and the prisoners became more nervous about whether their defiant stand would lead to nothing in the end.

This increasingly complicated circumstance could be solved a bit at least if the New York State government stepped back a little, but Governor Nelson Rockefeller preferred not to do that at all simply because he did not want to damage his public image as a Republican politician who had always emphasized law and order just like President Richard M. Nixon. As a matter of fact, President Nixon virtually allowed Governor Rockefeller to do whatever was necessary for crushing the prisoners, and, once the negotiation process reached to the inevitable dead end, Governor Rockefeller sent not only the police but the National Guard into the facility.

Alternating between a number of people who were prisoners in the facility and a National Guard soldier who was there at a that time, the documentary conveys to us how the uprising was brutally and atrociously suppressed on September 13th. Most of prisoners, who were not armed at all, were quite panic and helpless when the police and the National Guard began to shoot at them without any hesitation, and no less than 29 prisoners and 10 hostages were killed during this pandemonium. Once this massacre was over, the surviving prisoners were relieved a bit, but then there came another horrible ordeal for them, and the documentary shows us a series of disturbing photographs shot in the facility during that terrible time.

The documentary also listens to the family members of several prison guards who were in the facility during the uprising, and it is clear that they were also quite traumatized by what happened in the end. Although they subsequently received considerable compensation from the New York State government after filing a lawsuit against it, they are still sad and angry about the death of their loved ones, and we come to discern more of how unjust the brutal suppression of the uprising in Attica really was.

In conclusion, “Attica” is a terrific documentary which thoroughly examines its historical subject without losing any human dimension, and directors Stanley Nelson and Traci Curry did a commendable job on the whole. Considering how the system has not changed much during next five decades, the documentary is certainly relevant and enlightening, and you will reflect more on its social issues after watching it.

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