Written by Maria Athayde
It is a funny thing how the past is a window into the present and the present is a window into the past. That was the overwhelming feeling I had after watching Attica. To backtrack, Attica recounts in painstaking detail the story behind the largest prison rebellion in US history which started on October 9th, 1971 in Attica, New York. But behind the rebellion this documentary tells a much bigger story. It tells us the story about a system that is meant to keep people down. Using historical footage, surveillance videos, audio recordings, and first person testimony, director Stanley Nelson Jr. expertly crafts a story about humanity. Nelson Jr. reminds us about the prisoners’ humanity and indicts a system that is meant to keep men in chains.
It is the testimony and first person account of former inmates that participated in the rebellion that bring this story to life. Former inmates systematically recount the racist administration network and brutalization they suffered behind the prison walls. Examples of this brutalization included beating inmates with lead pipes, feeding pork to Muslim inmates, poor sanitary conditions, and lack of an infirmary for treatment. In their own words, inmates recounted that they did not cease being human just because they broke the law, but they were treated in a way that made it seem as if they no longer had basic human rights or dignities. This narrative and tension is the throughline through the majority of the documentary. Nelson does not stray away from this recounting until the last quarter of the documentary where it culminates in a brutal, shocking, and infuriating last 30 minutes that documents the death of 33 inmates.
The ending of this story sounds too familiar with our present moment. Among inmates and prison guards 43 men died. Unsurprisingly zero convictions were given to the state police who were sent in by Governor Rockefeller to gain control of the prison. This is an important piece of historical filmmaking that documents our broken prisons system and the lack of humanity that is ascribed to prisoners. Ultimately, what made this documentary excel were former inmates’ willingness to share their stories in their own words and Nelson’s ability to craft a story that reminds us of our shared humanity to matter the circumstances.