“Attica … was fear,” Arthur Harrison, a former prisoner, says matter-of-factly into the camera.
That fear comes from many factors — white supremacy, dehumanizing conditions and crippling isolation — all of which are captured in Stanley Nelson’s hypnotizing and infuriating documentary “Attica,” which lays out the “how” and “why” behind this nation’s largest prison rebellion.
In 1971, white guards from the rural upstate New York area around Attica, given no training, had been tasked with watching the majority Black and Latino prison population in a system designed around and hellbent on treating its prisoners “like dogs,” as the documentary notes. This treatment included Muslim prisoners being fed pork and inmates being forced to ration out one roll of toilet paper a month, receiving a lack of clean sheets and toothpaste, and facing vicious beatings and abuse.
Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that 1,200 fed-up prisoners decided to fight back for five days, taking the guards captive to send a desperate message that no matter what they did to end up in Attica, they were still entitled to be treated as human beings. Most importantly, these men didn’t put their lives on the line just for themselves, but for the generations of future Attica prisoners to come after them.
Incarcerated men at Attica state prison in 1971.
Under Nelson’s watch, the film is a powerful fusion of emotional interviews, never-before-seen footage, and exquisite pacing and editing, providing a tension-filled recollection about the revolution imploding inside Attica’s prison yard and the sinister plans bubbling outside in the parking lot, in the city of Attica itself and even in the White House. Regardless of whether you already know Attica’s history, the film’s heartbreaking and deadly third act will take your breath away and leave you filled with rage.
This type of gut-wrenching storytelling is standard for Nelson, who in his nearly 30-year career has built an incredible filmography with works such as “Freedom Riders” and “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple.” But even for a three-time Emmy winner, “Attica” has surpassed expectations, garnering him his first Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature at the 2022 Academy Awards. HuffPost sat down with the New York City native to revisit Attica 50 years later, discuss the importance of viewing incarcerated people as human beings and examine how far the prison industrial complex hasn’t come since the ’70s.
First, we have to talk about the Academy Awards. You’ve been making films for nearly 30 years, and this is your first Oscar nomination! How does it feel?
So, the one-word answer is it feels incredible. Soooo great. [Laughs] I’m so honored, and this Oscar nomination will mean that more people will see “Attica.” The bottom line for me is for more people to think about the issues in the film not only about the criminal justice system but also about the class system, race, prisons and government power.
I wanted to tell a story about the justice system in the United States and not for it to focus on one person, which is how a lot of these stories are told: wrongly convicted and incarcerated person who the system has wronged. But the story of Attica is not that they were wrongly incarcerated — it’s about the horrible treatment of a whole group of incarcerated people. It’s about the entire criminal justice system, and I thought this was a story where I could also get to other truths.
Also, when we started making the film, we were approaching the 50th anniversary, so I knew that many people were involved, especially the imprisoned people who were very young back on the yard, are now in their 70s and would be alive and able to tell those stories vibrantly. But 10 years down the line, they would be 80 and 85, and there’s less chance of finding people who would be alive and remember. So that was the “why now.” Ironically, the film premiered at the Toronto [International] Film Festival on Sept. 9, 2021, the exact 50th anniversary of the first day of the Attica rebellion.
There are so many standout scenes in Attica that hit you in the gut. One was the scene where they slept outside on the first night and what it meant for prisoners, and the other was the quote, “If we cannot live as people, we will at least try to die like men.”
Absolutely. Those are two great big, great scenes — 22 years without seeing the night sky. The one scene with the quote makes you think about the whole incarceration system. It’s important to note that L.D. Barkley only had 60 days left on his sentence — he didn’t deserve to be in a maximum[-security] prison. They didn’t care. They murdered him anyway because he was a leader and talked on camera.
Another scene that hit me is the whole storyline of [New York] Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and then-President Richard Nixon. It’s so surprising and incredible the way they were talking about it during and afterward and were concocting this story in real time to lie to the American people about what was actually going on. Rockefeller wasn’t acting on behalf of the families, but of the president. When Nixon asks, “Were any white people killed?” it really lets you see the racism that’s embedded throughout the film. Prison guards yelling “white power” after they retake the prison, the townspeople outside screaming the N-word. It’s truly something else.
I can’t imagine the amount of research you and your team had to do to have this level of understanding and nuance. What was the process?
We had two great consultants. One was Heather Thompson, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize[-winning] book “Blood in the Water” about Attica. So, she had contacts with people she had interviewed and helped us get interviews. The other person we worked with was a woman named Judy Clarke, who’s a prison rights advocate. She had a lot of street cred in the community and she would talk to people, over and over again, explaining what we were trying to do and that we wanted to tell this 360-degree story about Attica, in all its fullness. At first, a lot of people didn’t want to talk or let us in the door, but some came around and in the film they got to tell their stories and they were all great.
In this file photo of Sept. 10, 1971, inmates of Attica state prison (right) negotiate with New York prisons commissioner Russell Oswald (lower left) at the maximum-security prison where inmates had taken control in rural western New York.
Associated Press File Photo
What about the prison guards’ families? Were they reluctant too?
That was kind of incredible that we found the families and that they agreed to talk to us. Some didn’t, but the ones that did are incredible in the film. Having their perspectives just added another dimension to the film. Part of it is that they occupy a kind of middle ground because their loved ones were guards in Attica and yet were injured or killed in the retaking of Attica by the police and national guard. They sued the state and won a lawsuit, so they have a lot of animosity toward the government about what happened. We could convince them that we were just trying to tell an honest story by going in and talking to them. My heart goes out to the families.
There is so much footage in this film, which we learn is because the prisoners understood the need for the media to be there, to document the truth. If the phrase, “the revolution will be televised” ever perfectly embodied a situation, it was this one.
One of the first things the prisoners did when they took over the prison [was they] called for the media to come in. They invited TV cameras in because they wanted transparency, they wanted the world to see what was happening and that this was about negotiations and not getting out of prison. They thought there would be a certain amount of protection if this was all on film and televised. The cameras were there and rolling every day, both inside the prison and outside the walls of the prison. They shot the prisoners’ faces, they shot the hostage families outside and, you know, worrying and crying and fainting. And the law enforcement being handed guns and all of that stuff. So that’s one of the things that led to this incredible, incredible footage in the film.
Regardless of whether white America got it then, the cameras also captured the prisoners in their radical and intellectual element. They were inspired by the Black Panthers, prison activists from around the country, and books written by Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver.
You’re right. Just looking at the speeches they’re making, the things that they do. It resonates in the film because you see the prisoners today that we interview and you see how intelligent they are, how emotional they are and how their personalities kind of come through. One of them is funny. One of them is religious. One is incredibly thoughtful. One of them is still emotionally broken up by what happened. Whatever they are, you see them as human beings. And that resonates because, back then, what they were calling for constantly was to be treated like human beings even though they were incarcerated.
Finally, “Attica” exposes prisons and how we as a society look at incarcerated people. How much has changed from 1971 to now?
In some small degree, prisons have changed. They certainly get more toilet paper and access to libraries and education programs. You know, small changes. But that’s balanced by the fact there are over 2 million people in prison today — 10 times as many people [as] back then. Many of them are there because of marijuana, which is now legal in some states. Hopefully this film drives people for a moment to start thinking about the prison industrial complex and looking at incarcerated people as human beings. We have to care for everyone, and the way we treat our prisoners is indicative of our society. We have to do better.
“Attica” is streaming on Showtime and available on Hulu and Prime Video.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.