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TV/Film Reviews

Film Review: ‘Attica’ (dir. Stanley Nelson) | TIFF 2021

A gut-punch in every sense of the phrase, it’s especially sad that a story of such racial issues and brutal from law enforcement is as relevant as it is today.

In Attica, filmmaker Stanley Nelson documents the events surrounding and leading up to the largest prison uprising in US history, which took place at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York on September 9, 1971 — almost exactly fifty years ago to the date that I screened this film.

A gut-punch in every sense of the phrase, a difficult but necessary watch, it’s especially sad that a story of such racial issues and law enforcement brutality is as relevant as it is today.

As someone who knew only the basics of Attica — I basically knew it was a prison uprising, a prison revolt — this was incredibly insightful. I can imagine that, even as somebody who is well versed on what went down at Attica, you would glean a great amount of new information and garner a newfound perspective. I commend director Stanley Nelson for taking on this mission to bring back up these horrible memories so that the next generation of people won’t let anyone forget what happened.

Quite literally taking you inside the prison during its darkest days, it’s always a strange feeling to see things that you feel like you’re not supposed to be seeing. Like when you got to go in the teacher workroom in elementary school or saw what it looked like on the other side of the front desk, it takes you in a world you knew existed but haven’t seen.

Rather than just recounting the events chronologically, Attica takes the more interesting approach to hear from every angle. Featuring recent firsthand accounts from eyewitnesses including former Attica prisoners who were involved in the uprising, children of the correction officers who were held hostage, and journalists who covered the events in realtime, it effectively lays out everything a person would want to know about the stranger-than-fiction story. Every time you think the story might be nearing its close, there’s another horrifying step taking things even further.

When I would see some of this footage, I would think to myself, “Why was this even being recorded in the first place? Who thought to film this during this moment?” Having the videos, photos, and audio pulled from the surveillance footage, news coverage, and helicopters flying overhead fully encapsulates the horrors of this event takes the horror to an entirely different level.  It is bone-chilling. It is heartbreaking. I was sick at my stomach and uneasy after seeing this. That might not be painting this documentary in the most positive light, but I say that to prove just how effective this was a piece of portraying history. 

The most effective aspect of this documentary, that was handled in an extremely subtle but profound way, is the overlay of sound effects from the footage while different people shared their stories. 

Were there some structural issues I had with the doc? Just a few, but nothing to tarnish the overall appeal. The first half of the documentary spends a little bit too much time trying to give you background information on the prison, which is informative in giving perspective but pales in comparison to the second half. The film quickly shifts gears from talking about the conditions of the prison to a pace that (for one, got my heart rate up, but also) fully captivates your attention.

This is a human rights issue. Race and ethnicity should not have played a factor in this at all. I was so perturbed and hurt by some of the things that were said in these old videos. To think that someone would think or behave the way some of these “monsters” did is just horrific. This could easily play as part of TIFF’s Midnight Madness showcase, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised because it’s that appalling.

It is a visual reinforcement of the irony asking who were the bad guys in this situation? The prisoners or the men from law enforcement called in on that day? This was a complete and total show of force that no one can (or at least shouldn’t) stand by or justify.

Something that one of the former Attica prisoners said that really struck a chord with me is, “It didn’t have to be that way.” It didn’t. There was some gross miscommunication, misunderstanding, misjudgment, and misbehavior that cumulatively amounted to a nightmare of a situation.

I was fully infuriated by this, and I say that as the best compliment to this documentary. The fact that it not only mapped out the details of an event but that it also brought out the very emotions that come with it, was extremely powerful.

You’ve no doubt heard of the story in Attica, but do you really know what happened there? It is often mentioned in movies like Dog Day Afternoon or touched on in series like Orange is the New Black, but this Stanley Nelson’s impeccable documentary delves into the truth and the stories of it all.

This is absolutely essential viewing. Why is this story not more well-known? Unfortunately, I think we all know the answer. Make sure this story doesn’t go untold for another fifty years.

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