(Content note: This interview contains descriptions of police violence and murder.)
In the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Attica,” directors Stanley Nelson and Traci A. Curry take viewers through the five days of the historic rebellion at Attica Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in New York state. In September of 1971, prisoners at Attica seized control of the facility, held some of the prison guards as hostages, and crafted more than 30 demands addressing the routine violence and inhumane conditions they lived under. Prisoners at Attica attempted to negotiate with officials at the Department of Corrections as well as state and local leaders while also, as the film shows, utilizing each others’ expertise to remain fortified and keep the hostages, mediators, and themselves safe. Journalists were permitted to enter the facility over the five-day uprising and broadcast conditions, enabling the rebellion to capture the entire nation’s attention. Prisoners also assembled an observer’s committee composed of attorneys, activists, and journalists who might be sympathetic to their cause. That group was also allowed to enter the facility and helped mediate negotiations and refine prisoners’ demands.
Tragically, what could have been a pivotal moment to create change at Attica and ignite potential reform at other prisons across the country became one of the bloodiest single-day massacres of Americans by Americans since the Civil War. On the fifth and final day of the rebellion, law enforcement stormed the facility and rained gunfire on both prisoners and their hostages for 10 minutes, ultimately killing 39 men. The local and national press falsely reported that 10 hostages died at the hands of Attica prisoners and not law enforcement—an untruth that was later debunked but still shapes far too many people’s perception of the rebellion and the prisoners who took part in it.
Over 50 years later, Nelson and Curry’s film gives an in-depth look into each of the five days of the uprising and the conditions that kindled it, using the words and stories of former prisoners as well as stunning archival footage and videos. Unlike press coverage of the time, “Attica” also attempts to tell a 360 view of the story, getting the perspective of not just those who were incarcerated there, but also members of the observers committee and the families of the guards who worked there and were held as hostages. The film captures the uprising’s crescendo of energy and potential and the devastation of its abrupt and horrific end at the hands of the State. Viewers of “Attica” will better understand how the facility staff, local and state government, the press, and the general public attempted to dehumanize those incarcerated at Attica before, during, and long after the rebellion. Perhaps most importantly, viewers will be challenged to consider whether in five decades we’ve deepened our capacity to care about the conditions of the incarcerated and respond to their demands—many of which have not changed drastically, if at all. Prism sat down with directors Nelson and Curry, as well as James Asbury, who was formerly incarcerated at Attica, to discuss the film.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.
Tamar Sarai Davis: Stanley, I’m curious to know what first compelled you to take on the story of Attica at this moment in time?
Stanley Nelson: I’ve been thinking about Attica for probably 30 years or so, and the fact that I didn’t really know the full story—I think most people didn’t know the full story. Maybe four or five years ago I started thinking really seriously about the film and the fact that the people involved with the story were starting to get older and that now would be the best and maybe the last time that we could tell the story in its fullest. I think we actually had already started the project when we realized that the 50th anniversary was coming up and that the film would hit almost exactly at the 50th anniversary of the uprising at Attica.
Davis: The film takes us through each day of the rebellion. Did you enter into the research and development process with this frame and structure in mind, or did that take shape in the development process?
Nelson: Really early on in the research and development of the project, we came upon the structure kind of day by day. You know, it’s not a very complicated structure, but every day was different and every day was kind of a roller coaster ride. By structuring it simply as day one, day two, day three, etc., we could tell the story and the audience wouldn’t be confused, but also every day is different and you go from the exuberation of the first day to the disappointment, to more exuberation and so on.
Davis: The film makes clear how the men in Attica utilized the news media as a political strategy, allowing the press to enter and broadcast the conditions inside. It was an incredibly important tactic, and yet we also see in your film the ways that the press got so much wrong and negatively shaped the public perception about Attica for generations. How did you ensure that the story you were telling was honest to what happened? How did you manage the fact that some of the voices reflected in the film have deeply varied opinions about the Attica rebellion?
Traci A. Curry: I think to your point, one of the failures of the media in Attica is sort of the issue that we see today about relying on a single source. The major failure that the press misreported is what happened on Sept. 13. They reported what an official with the prison said, which was that the hostages had been killed by the prisoners that day, when in fact, no hostages were killed by prisoners that day—they were all killed by [police] gunfire. So I wouldn’t necessarily say that our approach was informed by any sort of opposition to or failure by the media, but [instead] from the nature of stories that we heard from people on all sides.
From the beginning, we did want to tell a 360-degree story, which includes the prisoners but also includes the people of Attica village. We wanted to highlight that though Attica is burned into history as the prison, it was also a place, and it was a community of people who, as you see in the film, relied on the prison for not only their livelihood. It really was a part of the culture there and a point of pride that generations of people had been able to make a living and raise their families off working there. [The uprisings] very much affected those folks because their loved ones were inside the prison. So we wanted to make sure that we told that story.
Obviously, you have to hear from the media; as you mentioned, they were a huge part of it as well as the observers. But I just think getting to some sense of the truth of what happened really necessitated that we hear from as many people who were there, who lived it, who were touched by it as possible. So that was just the goal and the intention of how we wanted to tell the story.
Davis: James, I would love to know what your thoughts and feelings were when you initially were invited to share your story for this film?
James Asbury: I was somewhat reluctant because every time that door was opened I would fall into a deep state of depression that was derived from the PTSD I suffered because of that particular experience in my life. But I have two close friends who compelled me to tell the truth and said that was part of the legacy I’d have to leave my family. I have a grandson and granddaughter who have no knowledge of what happened to me 50 years ago, and I was a bit confused myself because I just didn’t believe that people could be so hostile, so oppressive, and so intent on murdering other human beings.
I think law enforcement from all over that particular region was there, and it was what you call a pot-shot where [they all] had the opportunity to kill somebody. Forty-three people lost their lives, so the thing for me was that [the police] didn’t care who they killed, they just wanted to kill us and if [the hostages] were somehow in the mix, so be it. Sometimes in society, certain cultures can be very, very insidious in their beliefs and want to dominate everything and skew the real truth. I was surprised that not enough people know, and it still amazes me because this is history too. We talk about Nazi Germany, we talk about all things all around the world, but this was something that happened right in the United States of America.
Davis: Stanley, I was stunned by the archival materials—photos, videos, audio—that we get to access through the film and particularly shocked that I had never seen them before. Was it a challenge to obtain those materials, and do you think that their relative concealment to the broader public up to this point has been purposeful?
Nelson: We didn’t find a mother lode of archival footage in one place—we just had to dig through state archives and through different networks—ABC, NBC, CBS, local stations in Buffalo, New York—just everywhere we could possibly think of to find archives. It was also heightened by the fact that the film was made entirely during COVID. So many of the archives were closed and they didn’t know when they were gonna open, and we just had to really be persistent. We had a great archival producer, Rosemary Rotondi, who was just dogged in calling people and calling people back and just trying to make sure we got all of the archival materials that we possibly could.
One of the things that was really amazing is that this was a time when all this stuff was shot on 16 millimeter, and when we finally had a fine cut of the film, we went back to the network and had them retransfer the 16 millimeter. The images are just incredible, and not all had come out at the time [of the uprising]. Some of the images were actually collected by the lawyers—who were in the more than 25-year lawsuit that the former inmates mounted against the prison system. I knew going in that there was some footage and some images, but I had no idea that there was so much and [that they were] so graphic. That really enabled us to tell the story we were able to tell. Also, one of the reasons why these images exist was because from the very first day that the prisoners took over Attica, they invited the media in and they wanted the cameras to come in and film everything. In a way they thought it would afford them some kind of protection if everything was out in the open and seen by the news media—that one decision not only changed everything about the Attica rebellion, it also changed everything for us.
Davis: In other interviews you’ve been asked about the possibility of another prison uprising of the scale and magnitude of Attica happening today. Traci, I know you’ve cited conditions at Rikers and how even New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams has drawn comparisons between that jail and Attica and warned that a similar revolt could happen there. What do you think the response would be? Would prisoner demands be received differently by the state, the media, and the general public?
Curry: I feel whenever I get asked questions about the current state of the system that I want to say something that feels like progress from Attica and that feels hopeful. I am encouraged to see a lot of the discourse about reform, even about abolition, that had been really kind of marginal, moving into the mainstream in terms of our consideration of the system and what we’re willing to allow, supposedly, in the name of public safety. However, [what about] the willingness of the state to respond with violence to a righteous challenge to abuse of power? We’ve seen in just the last few years what that looks like—the state is very much willing to use force and violence to suppress people who speak up against law enforcement abuses. So while I would like to think and hope that what happened at Attica 50 years ago couldn’t happen today, I just look around at the world that we’re in now, and that does not give me a lot of confidence that would be the case.
Davis: What is Attica’s legacy to each of you, and what is something you hope viewers will ultimately come away with or take note of after the film?
Nelson: Attica isn’t unique. The fact that Attica is 350 miles from New York City in the middle of nowhere—that’s how prisons are set up all over the country. There are towns just like Attica that are living and surviving off the prison system—it is that way so that we don’t have to think about it because they’re far away from us. At the very least, my hope is that it gets people thinking about the people in prison. Prison is cruel and unusual punishment. We have to think about change, and the first step is to think about the fact that 2 million people are incarcerated right at this moment.
Asbury: We’re talking about state and federal prisons that are placed in rural, off-the-map type places, you’d have to really Google or get a map to find them. The other thing that I guess a lot of the brothers were talking about and that we hardly talk about now was the diversity in state prisons—that meant hiring more Black and brown individuals, etc. They probably do have that now, I haven’t been up there in 50 years, but at the time the population [in Attica] was more Black and Hispanic than anything else.
Curry: One of the things that we see in the film is this moment where Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon are on the phone essentially working to craft the narrative that would be the justification to the public for the massacre of 39 people—[that] it was necessary for public safety, to maintain law and order, and to control what they saw as this sort of unruly Blackness run amok inside the prison. I would hope that seeing all that in the film is an invitation for people to look at the system that we have today and the violence of all kinds—not just the physical violence but also the dehumanization of people, the denial of personhood, the denial of full citizenship. To look at the violence that the State does in the lives of people who are and have been incarcerated and [ask], what is the narrative that we’re being told about why that’s necessary? To just have a very clear-eyed look at the system that we’re living with and to interrogate it to see if what we are told matches up with the reality of what the system does.