Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 04, 2021 4:24 pm 
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"Law and order" and American racism: a historic example - powerful new documentary about the Attica prison uprising

The usual, lots of archival footage and a slow string of talking heads to document a contemporary event - of fifty years ago. A time worn way to bring old data to light. But the chances are some of these images and words will stay with you, maybe even forever. For me the memory-graven image is the rows and rows of standing naked men, robust and young, mostly black-skinned, but some unmistakably white. These are the prisoners who revolted, at the time of their humiliation and torture, after the rebellion of the Attica prison population in September 9–13, 1971 had been brutally crushed. This was the result of the morally hollow and tactically mistaken decision of New York governor and aspiring presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller, who consulted before and after his atrocity with President Richard Nixon. A very powerful and instructive film, this is the result of the dedicated effort of the outstanding African American documentary team of Traci Curry and Stanley Nelson. One can only imagine what passion is buried here. That it pays off is clear.

The film plunges in rather quickly. We don't quite fully understand how the men, about 1,200 of the total prison population of 2,200, took control. But once the The Attica Prison Rebellion, also known as the Attica Prison Massacre, the Attica Uprising or the Attica Prison Riot, was under way, the rebels moved out into a central prison yard and set up rudimentary tents - or "hooches" in the Vietnam vet jargon they used for them). Once that happened. surveillance cameras provided a lot of images of what was going on which we can see now. Knowing the cameras were there, many inmates wore cloth masks like ninjas.

The talking heads are a mix of former Attica inmates, family members of guards, chosen "observers" called in at the time, and others who were also called in, including journalists, congressional prisoner advocates a national guardsman, et al. Notably, these are all in people who were physically and emotionally some way participants, not mere present day after-the-fact commentators or "experts." This was the event of a lifetime. To say that these men (and one or two guard family women) remember it intensely is an understatement.

In the style of the day - the Sixties - the prisoners made a long list of demands. They had a group of hostages to insure they were meet and they would be given amnesty, for which they pleaded. They made a point of guarding the hostages' safety.

But before we go here: briefly, the ex-inmates have sketched in what a place Attica was, and the film has shown the town. What kind of town is the one whose entire population makes its livelihood off a prison? Would you want to live in such a town? But if you were born into it - there were three generations of guards - would you not go to work there? As for the place: "It was nothing." "It was dead." It was the worst prison in the populous state of New York. Eighty percent of the inmates were black or Hispanic. The guards were rural, upstate, and white, aliens, who had no understanding of what it might be to grow up in Brooklyn or Queens and poor. They did not try to communicate. They commanded inmates, "DON'T TALK!" they communicated with sticks. The food? Medical care? Bedding? Laundry? The amount spent on each inmate meal was 21 cents. (Okay: a dollar forty.) "A roll of toilet paper, or a change of bedsheets, had to last you a month. Where was the toothpaste? Muslims were denied the right to worship and were fed pork [locally raised]. Teams of guards would come in at night to take out a prisoner they had a problem with and beat him" (-Variety). In the uprising, inmates say to outsiders: "Do you have a dog? You treat your dog better than we are treated here."

So there was the rebellion, Attica Prison was taken over by the inmates. They had had enough.
We get it. But were could it all go? One thing is clear: it didn't need to end the way it did, in such evil, confusion, and brutality. The failure of leadership of Mr. Rockefeller was spectacular. The ugliness, the racism of the prison system, horrifying and eye-opening.

This event served to dramatize the mass-produced inhumanity of the American prison system, but the film doesn't have time to go into the shock waves, the books, the subsequent developments,
It stays too close to the events and the emotions of those five turbulent days. But maybe that's okay. There is a purity and authenticity in this film that seems right and is moving and powerful.

From among the inmates leaders emerged, notable for their authority and eloquence. But right at the start, a fatal error: they beat one guard so severely that several days later he died, and with that specter of homicide outside sympathies shifted - or the repressors simply got their excuse. The lead inmate spokesman, an articulate prison lawyer, made a big mistake in rejecting a document of legal amnesty because it lacked a "seal," and he was grandstanding. Another spokesman memorably declared that if they could not be treated as people they would die like men.

To the guards, their families, and their local sympathizers, the ignorant whites whose use of the "N word" is always an ugly curse, the rebellious prisoners, among whom there were white men - and we hear from two of them throughout the film; theirs was a common cause - these people are evil brutes. Hence the lies perpetrated: that the inmates were torturing the hostages, and that they slit the throats of the guards they held when the police moved in with their terrible revenge on the last day - a lie that news men passed on; famous mainstream newsmen are shown in clips that show them expressing bland versions of a racist, law and order interpretation of events.

Autopsies showed that the police had shot and killed all those who died, the forty-three killed, thirty-three inmates, ten guards, all of them. Rockefeller did not provide for his own pawns in the game. None of them were human to him, not even the "correctional officers," one of whom, seen here, gave a newsman a message for Governor Rockefeller, "If he says no, I'm dead." He knew. It happened. Rockefeller refused to go to the prison. His brutal, distant approach, reinforced with a racist presidential consultation (which we hear because Nixon taped everything+), was, the film tells us, an embodiment of the stylish new idea of "Law and Order." (J. Edgar Hoover: "Justice is merely incidental to law and order.")

This is the most shocking part of Curry and Nelson's powerful story: the failure of sympathy, the inability to treat people as human or important and the willingness to invent lies to demonize them. This new Attica film is a brutal lesson. For the politically aware and the stout of heart, this film is strongly recommended. A tough but essential watch. Very balanced, it is also a stunning visual record.

(There are at least two other earlier films, the passionately pro-prisoner Attica of 1974 by Cinda Firestone, which was very well received (see also the Voice review), and the 1980 feature film Attica by Marvin J. Chomsky (a cousin of Noam), a TV movie on which Tom Wicker, one of the Attica "observers' sent in at the time, as a writer and Charles Durning and Morgan Freeman as cast members; it seems to have been forgotten.)

Attica, 121 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 9, 2021, also showing at Hot Springs, Montclair, and DOC NYC; opening night film at SFFILM’s Doc Stories, Nov. 4, 2021. Limited theatrical release from Oct. 29, 2021, it releases on Showtime Nov. 6. Metacritic rating: 88%.

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