After the New York premiere of “Attica” recently, someone pulled Stanley Nelson aside, shaken by what they had seen, and marveled, “I don’t even know what to say. It’s like it’s not like a film. It’s an experience.”
“Don’t expect applause at the end because it’s like you’ve gone through a wild, crazy ride,” said Nelson, who has no doubt become accustomed to standing ovations after such films as “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities” and “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” yet is aware his latest takes some time to full process. “You can’t really describe the film and you don’t want to give it away, but I think it really packs a huge punch.”
He isn’t wrong, especially when the title so instantly conjures up images of the prison uprising in New York that gripped America over the course of a week in 1971, yet Nelson finds that the story of why it happened is so much more compelling than even how it happened, especially when the underlying causes of the rebellion have hardly been remedied to this day. With co-director Traci Curry, with whom he made the two-part doc “Vick” on the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and “Boss: The Black Experience in Business,” Nelson gathers first-person testimony from many of the surviving inmates who can recall down to the last detail hearing sirens go off in the prison yard and placing scarves and towels over the faces of the guards they had overtaken to protest conditions in the penitentiary, which had an inordinately large Black population tended to by a majority white police force.
Given a roll of toilet paper for use over an entire month and frequently fed pork since there was a pig farm on site, though many inmates were Muslim, the incarcerated were using all the time they had to read, taking inspiration from revolutionaries such as “Blood in My Eye” author George Jackson and Eldridge Cleaver, and as they mounted a response to their inhumane conditions, the New York Department of Corrections, likely thinking that they would be able to project their power as they began negotiations to end the uprising by letting cameras in to capture the whole ordeal, instead had it turned against them when their dehumanizing treatment was made plain to the world. The images are as shocking now as they were then, but “Attica,” recounted by those who lived through it, really shakes free of any historical trappings by allowing the men to regain control over their own story and with time, charts how injustices committed by the state touches all involved, including the guards and their families, as they made false claims for who was responsible and refused to acknowledge their own mishandling of the situation and creating the circumstances that led to it.
While “Attica” depicts how it’s a part of history that will never leave those involved alone, it reflects how it extends into the present day for all of us when the penal system continues to be designed towards fostering racial inequity throughout society and it’s an electrifying addition to Nelson’s increasingly monumental survey of the Black experience in the 20th century. Before its debut on Showtime this weekend after a fall festival run that began at the Toronto Film Festival, Nelson spoke about the sensitivity involved in bringing back a painful chapter of the past for the people that lived through it, going the extra mile during a pandemic to find such startling imagery and recognizing what was unfolding before his lens was impactful enough without overcontextualizing it.
Had this been in mind for a while simply because of the event itself or was the growing conversation around mass incarceration something that nudged you towards it?
Maybe like 20 or 30 years, I’ve been thinking about it and just trying to figure it out. At the same time, we’ve always wanted to do something on mass incarceration, so really a lot of things just came together three or four years ago. One was that my profile has risen in the industry, so I could do more of what I wanted to do, and this was just a film that I really, really wanted to do. And as far as I know, [what] has never been done well before in film is talk about why Attica happened. We always see Attica as it already began, but we were able to go back and talk about the mistreatment of the prisoners at Attica all across the board. That was something we were able to do, and I was really glad we were able to do because there were really distinct reasons why the inmates in Attica rebelled.
You’ve said that at some point you may have thought about including more historians and pulled back on that. What was it like realizing you could really talk to people who were there?
Yeah, that was one of the things going in that I had hoped because there were almost a thousand prisoners in the yard, and of that thousand, I hoped we could find a bunch that were still alive, and still very lucid and that the memories were very clear. We got incredible voices in the film, and I also want to say incredible faces — their faces are just amazing. But we always thought that we would need historians because we had conceived the film with no narration, and when we put together an assembly, we actually had filmed one historian, but it just seemed like he was coming from a different world, looking at things in a very academic way. And all the people that we had in the film — the prisoners, the National Guard, the observers, the families of the hostages — they were looking at stuff in a very visceral way. There were these memories that were just seared into their minds, and [the historian] just didn’t work. And I was like, “Uh-oh.” One of the historians, who’s an advisor of the film, is Heather Thompson who wrote a book called “Blood on the Water” that won a Pulitzer Prize, and I had to call her up and say, “Heather, we still need you and we still love you as an advisor, but I don’t think we’re going to have to interview you.” And she turned out to be really gracious, and totally understood and was just a real asset to the project.
This must’ve been a really traumatic experience for those involved – was it actually difficult to get people to participate?
Yeah, and Traci [Curry], this is the this film that she worked on with me in a row, and she did most of the research and the interviews. Traci’s just incredibly talented, has a real strong journalism background and can really dig and find people. She also has this great way about her and was able to convince people that they should at least talk to them. She had to call people cold, and say you’re sitting in your house, and all of a sudden this strange woman calls and asks you to do an interview. A lot of times, we had to call back multiple times and a lot of people said, “No.” But a lot of people said, “Yes,” and there’s a kind of community of people that were involved in Attica, so once we got a few, they were able to say to other people, “Hey, they’re really okay. Their heart’s in the right place, and they’re not trying to exploit us or rip us off,” and people started to fall in line.
Was there a piece of archival or an interview that took this in a direction that you hadn’t expected?
When we started to get multiple prisoners and we realized that we had like 10 or so people who were who were actually imprisoned in Attica at the time or in the yard, that was a key. When we got the families of hostages who agreed to talk, that was another key. One of the biggest moments for us was when Clarence Jones, who was about 88 years old and lives out on the west coast but happened to be in New York, said, “I’m in.”, And he was one of the observers, and you can’t believe that he’s [almost] 90 because he’s just so impassioned. Once we got Clarence, it was like, “Okay, we just have to make the film and not blow it.”
Because I understand that a lot of the records regarding Attica are still kept under state seal, was the research was difficult for this?
It was difficult because we’re much more interested in visual material. We’re interested in the archives, we’re interested in the footage, we’re interested in the stills, and I got to say, for anybody that hasn’t seen the film, the footage and the stills are just incredible. People I know try to talk to me about the film who haven’t seen it, and I don’t even know what to say. I’ve never seen anything like it. And it was a degree of difficulty getting the stuff, mainly because of COVID because archives were closed. The University of Buffalo had some stuff, and before you even close classes, you’re like, “Okay, we can close the archive,” so many times, they really didn’t have an answer [even to the question of] “When are you going to be back?” Then they started sending in like one person for one day a week, and they would be like, “Well, you’re the 34th order in the line, and I’ll get to you at some point.” So that was really difficult, besides all the other difficulties in producing a film in the time of COVID.
You’ve probably seen it all at this point, but putting this together remotely a whole new experience for you?
Yeah, it was crazy. We were about to start shooting in April, and the shutdown was in March. So we had to back off and put everybody on hiatus, then say, “Okay, wait. Now people are figuring out how to shoot,” but we didn’t want to send people little camera kits like [other productions] were doing [where] you get a box with a ring light and a camera, and somebody talks you through hooking it up to your computer. We wanted make sure that the film looked like the film that we had conceived before COVID and we did. In every interview, we had a cameraperson who was shooting it. And sometimes, Traci was not in the room. She was on a computer, and the person was looking at Traci’s face in a computer, and sometimes, she was able to get in the room. A couple of interviews, we shot outside to get around that. But it was a trip because everybody involved probably was at least 70 to 90-plus and we wanted to make sure they were safe. So we spent a lot of time working on it because the story is evergreen. The story of Attica is just it’s going to be just as important five or 10 years from now, and we don’t want people squinting at the screen being like, “Why does it look so bad?”