“Tragedy is when the victim becomes what they fear,” Shuaib Raheem says in “Hold Your Fire,” reflecting upon the standoff that commenced in 1973 when he and three other men attempted the robbery of John and Al’s Sporting Goods store in Brooklyn. The plan was to steal some of the firearms the store carried, for purposes that remain hazy in Stefan Forbes’ recounting, yet they had the guns turned on them after the NYPD arrived, holing up inside the store for nearly 47 hours and taking 11 hostages. Not long after the public spectacle that inspired “Dog Day Afternoon,” the police were loathe to have another robbery grow out of their control, though it was bound to happen when a question of who was holding up who hung in the air as a predominantly caucasian NYPD called out to monitor the situation by the dozens sure could look like the aggressors in taking on four young African-American men.
Those tensions haven’t dissipated in the intervening years as “Hold Your Fire” opens, constructed as a crossfire well after everyone put down their weapons years ago. An event that ended up taking the life of one officer (by whose gun still remains a mystery) and landed Raheem and his co-conspirators Salih Ali Abdullah, Dawud A. Rahman, and Yusef Abdub Almussidig in prison, Forbes interviews as many surviving participants as he can to recreate the tense two days in New York, an exercise that’s as illuminating about the attitudes that continue to persist in the NYPD to this day as it is about the standoff itself. Forbes has little specific archival footage to draw on, but beyond black-and-white photographs, he creates a sense of confrontation with how his subjects are presented — the more aggressive are shot upwards, the more passive at eye level — and lets one participant contradict the next in their recollections of what happened, with shopkeeper Jerry Riccio having an entirely different take on things than either Raheem or those on patrol such as Det. Al Sheppard.
A curious hero emerges in Harvey Schlossberg, a traffic cop with a Ph.D in psychology who is called upon to by Commissioner Patrick Murphy to help calm the situation down, appearing in the present day every bit the eccentric that other cops thought he was back in the day, wearing a tie comprised of Superman shields to set off an otherwise drab suit in a home office where stacks of paperwork threaten to tip over at any moment. The internal politics of the NYPD clearly fascinate Forbes, as well they should and many of the most fascinating stretches of “Hold Your Fire” involve the division in the department over tactics when the first instinct of most beat cops is to go for the gun while considering their superiors more inclined towards nonviolent resolution “pantywaists” (in Sheppard’s words). Without any tried-and-true procedure in place for handling a hostage negotiation, particularly under such high public scrutiny and with such inflamed racial politics involved, the situation at John and Al’s Sporting Goods became a grand experiment, not only intriguing for the groundwork it laid for future use but the strange twists it took because of the trial and error involved.
What’s refreshing about “Hold Your Fire” is when stories around crimes are often idealized, Forbes paints a picture where no knows if they were in the right and uncertainty or regret, whether articulated verbally or not, can be seen across the faces of those that were involved. Rather than taking anyone’s perspective as fact, the film shows certitude in worldviews that are hard to shake, whether it’s for Raheem, who grew up on “sugar water and ketchup sandwiches” and felt the need to get a gun for protection, Al Baker, a NYPD captain who can say in the same interview that he believes there is never any discrimination in policing by clarifying, “We overdefine racism as something bad when we just want to be with our own kind,” or Fonny Buckner, one of the hostages who is said to have refused to leave the building fearing the police more than those who were holding her captive. The variety of divergent perspectives allows one to see the humanity in them all and for as sadly predictable the outcome seems, the decisions that led to it were hardly predetermined, all shaped by the experiences each had, leading one to hope that in having a shared experience, even one that they see differently, it could change attitudes once more.
“Hold Your Fire” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival virtually on September 11th at 2 pm and September 13th at 10 am, available anywhere in Canada.