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'That happened then, is it still happening now?': Documentary puts first-hand accounts of 1971 Attica prison uprising front and centre

·6-min read
Attica (Courtesy of TIFF)

On Sept. 9, 1971 inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility led the largest prison uprising in U.S. history, taking staff as hostages, and now a new documentary, titled Attica, part of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), allows us to hear about what happened from the people who were actually there.

In 1971, inmates engaged in negotiations and a standoff seeking better living conditions, more rights and humane treatment in the correctional facility. After the New York State Police raided the facility after five days, 43 people died, followed by significant attempts to cover up and lie about what actually happened in Attica.

“Traci [Curry] and I went back and forth, I was a little reluctant,” former Attica inmate Tyrone Larkins told Yahoo Canada. “I believed her when she said we're going to be objective and you are the history guys, and you're going to tell it the way it happened, and I was pleased with that.”

From my own integrity standpoint, I don't need anybody to tell me what I went through 50 years ago, or to reinterpret what I went through.Tyrone Larkins, Attica inmate

The concept for Attica started with director/producer Stanley Nelson and his desire to tell a story that “had not really been told” in its fullness.

Nelson told Yahoo Canada he believed it was also a time when, in some ways, people around the world, and in the U.S., would be “a little bit more open” to the documentary because of the more recent conversations around police brutality, specifically “the visual nature of police brutality.”

“As a filmmaker, I realized that there was a lot of footage, the prison in Attica invited the press and there was a lot of footage, and I felt that there was a story that we could tell,” he explained.

“So many of the prisoners were young, they were 20, 21, 22, 23, and they were still alive and vibrant, and so many of them had not really had the chance to tell their story.”

TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 09: (L-R) Sushana Dubreil, Marcia A. Smith, Stanley Nelson Jr., Traci Curry, Tyrone Larkins, Heather Thompson, and Jaclyn Lee attend the
TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 09: (L-R) Sushana Dubreil, Marcia A. Smith, Stanley Nelson Jr., Traci Curry, Tyrone Larkins, Heather Thompson, and Jaclyn Lee attend the "Attica" Photo Call during the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival at TIFF Bell Lightbox on September 09, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Juanito Aguil/Getty Images)

Building trust

For producer Traci Curry, what drew her to this project is that the story of what happened at Attica presents an opportunity to tell a story at “two levels.”

“That both talks about institutional injustices and abuses of power at an institutional level, but really tell it in a granular way from the level of the individuals who lived it,” she explained.

“It kind of allows the people who were there and who were involved to both tell their personal story, in their personal experience, but to also expose something bigger about the penal institution...and injustices that were there as well.”

Curry explained that this story was not necessarily something that everyone who is involved was necessarily “jumping” to be a part of, because of the “profound trauma” that they experienced.

“To relive it to strangers, which at that point last year, Stanley and I were to them, we’re all like one little Attica family now, but, it's no small thing to do that,” she explained. “I think in that way, it was a little difficult at the beginning getting people to sort of engage and want to talk about it.”

“But what I found is that once we were able to kind of build that trust, and like Tyrone said, I made it very, very clear to everyone that, to the extent that this story gets told in this film, it's going to get told because you tell it. This is your story to tell, we're not going to frame you guys with sort of a voice of God coming in and saying, well this is what they really meant.”

Attica Correctional Facility Riot
(Photo By: NY Daily News via Getty Images)
Attica Correctional Facility Riot (Photo By: NY Daily News via Getty Images)

'That happened then, is it still happening now?'

For Larkins, he hopes that people who watch this documentary take in these actual facts of what happened at Attica and to view history “as it was.”

“For the viewer to make his own analysis of ‘Hey, that happened then, is it still happening now?’ That question always seemed to come up,” he said.

“This act of brutality, racism and all the other negative factors has been going on for quite a while. Attica just happened to be showing it, and that was 50 years ago, and if you want to look at certain things that are happening now in ‘correctional facilities,’ you'll see the very same issues.”

While working on the film, Curry had the intention to tell a 360-degree story, which includes former inmates, survivors, people from the community of Attica, New York, family members of hostages and journalists that were on the scene.

“We wanted to hear from some of the hostage guards who we did, in fact, try very hard to include in the film, they declined to participate,” she revealed.

“I think there's a way in which the story can become very reductive in terms of sort of heroes, villains,...and we really wanted to get into the nuances of what it means when Attica village was this small town, America, that’s suddenly thrust into the national spotlight.”

Curry also pointed out the class analysis in the film, where you have mainly people of colour in the prison, from working class backgrounds, but you also have the working class people who were the guards.

“Then you have Nelson Rockefeller, who was this unfathomably wealthy, powerful man who ultimately saw all of the lives of the people that were in there as disposable, whether you were a hostage and a guard, or whether you were a [prisoner],” she said.

“So I think it was really important for us to try to tease out as many of those nuances in the story as possible.”

For Nelson, he highlights that now people have the ability to record and share the visuals of police brutality on their cell phones, allowing them to see what they usually dismissed.

“I think that what's really important, in a way, is that police brutality, it didn't start five, 10 years ago with the inventing of the cell phone camera, it’s been going on,” he said.

“One of the things we see in the film is just the incredible racism, not only of the guards, but of the New York police who were surveilling the situation…. The window opens just a little bit wider, just a little bit, because of this film.”

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