Released: 27th January
Seen: 11th March
Attica, the documentary, details the story of the Attica Prison Riot, or as it’s alternatively known “The Attica Prison Massacre”. On September 9, 1971, the Attica prison riot began. Tension had been building in the New York prison for quite some time, due to the overcrowding and violence from the guards who regularly engaged in what can best be described as “Casual racism combined with the torture of the inmates they were charged to protect”.
The riot broke out quickly on the morning of the ninth and soon the prisoners took over the prison, taking a total of 42 officers and civilian workers hostage and beginning negotiations with those in positions of power to get their basic human needs met. For the next 5 days, negotiations went back and forth, deals were struck to try and get the prisoners things like “Enough toilet paper to last a normal human being a month” or “Basic medical care” or “Not be almost beaten to death by racist assholes” but after 5 days the state had enough and sent in armed officers with smoke bombs and loaded weapons.
By the time they took back the prison, 33 inmates were murdered along with 10 correctional officers, 9 of those were killed by the bullets from the people who allegedly came in to rescue them. It’s one of the big moments in the history of prison reform and while I’ve given you a very brief version of it, the documentary lays it out brilliantly.
Through a combination of interviews with the men who were in the prison at the time, families of survivors and a few members of law enforcement, the story of the riot is told in luxurious detail. Attica isn’t afraid to take a side here, while it’s sympathetic to the families of the officers who were killed it definitely wants to make clear just what vile things the prisoners were put through long before the riot began. The stories of the violence and the cruelty are heartbreaking, things that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. It takes a while to build-up to the actual riot but in doing so, the film lays out how this was building up a powder keg that was just waiting to go off.
Once Attica actually starts detailing the riot, breaking it up with graphics to let us know what day each event was happening (mostly to remind everyone how insanely quickly things escalated), the film starts pulling in archival footage that was somehow taken from inside the prison. Not only do we get told about what happened, the film puts us among the various groups of people in real-time and lets us see just what was going on.
It then goes on to deal with the big moment at the end of the riot, when a bunch of cops just started murdering people (and I feel comfortable calling it that because they show a clip of one of the cops yelling ‘white power’ right afterwards… this film is not subtle about how much racism there was during this) and a little content warning here, they show you the dead bodies in close up and it’s every bit as horrific as it sounds.
Now, if all Attica did as a documentary was to just detail the events that happened from start to finish it would still be an absolutely fascinating film but what elevates it is how it uses the elements of the events at Attica to explore bigger issues. Sure the film is officially about Attica and the riot, but it also is about prison reform and how we treat prisoners and racism and white privilege (literally, one of the white prisoners interviewed is explicit about how he not only knew he had privileges in prison because of his race, but he used them because he needed to in order to survive) and a whole host of other issues. It’s incredible, just when you think you can’t be more pissed off about what’s being put in front of you, suddenly they bring up another topic and you get to be mad about an entirely different injustice.
Of course, Attica does make sure to remind people that there were correctional officers there who were killed, we talk to their families and it does a fair job of showing their side of this issue. It doesn’t pretend that this was an entirely one-sided issue and lets those who were wronged in this have their moment… but it also doesn’t ever let anyone forget that this was largely caused by a system that decided literal torture was something acceptable to do to people in a prison (and if you want to argue with me that this was torture… you can’t, I’ve seen the pictures, it was torture).
It’s so compelling that even after 2 hours, you kind of end up wanting more. This feels like a story that could literally be a 7 part docuseries with an episode dedicated to every single day of the riot along with the aftermath and what lead to it. The film itself is well-paced and truly intense to sit through but it definitely feels like they had a lot more they could’ve put in here and it’s so well made that I would not have objected to it for a second.
Attica is a tough watch because the sad truth is that the conditions described in this documentary about events from 50 years ago still exist today. There’s still prison overcrowding, torture and other horrific things done to people in prison who deserve better treatment than what is shown here. It’s powerful, intense and the kind of documentary that will hopefully get someone in a position of power to do something to hopefully avoid another horrific tragedy like the Attica Prison Massacre.