Attica @ TIFF

Many things from the past can be used to teach us in the present as they still ring true. Systematic racism is one of those things. It has been around since one colour/culture/section of the population grabbed power and were not going to give it up under any circumstances. That meant that they wielded their power over any who were not deemed part of their group. Leaving those on the outside without equality, the same access to power or deemed equal. As time went on these unwritten rules seeped into every part of society – industry, legal system, politics, and entertainment world. This led to racism being all the people of colour have known in North America and most parts of the world.

It has long been a fact that African Americans and Latinos make up a disproportionate percentage of those incarcerated. Generation after generation. Those who worked in the jails were white and brought with them their racist views of blacks and Latinos so mistreatment of prisoners was often the norm.

Stanley Nelson (Boss: The Black Experience in Business, Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy) is one of the best American documentary filmmakers working today. He undertakes taking a fresh look at the largest prison uprising in U.S. history. The lessons contained within speak loudly to the systemic racism which continues today. That we have not addressed in the 50 years since.

On September 9, 1971, the inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York took staff at the prison hostage and staged an uprising that lasted five days. They were protesting the terrible conditions there. They wanted to negotiate an improvement. Submitted a list of demands and then began talks with the prison warden. When they made no headway they then asked for a group of observers, which they selected, to come in to continue the negotiations.

After a few days had passed one of the guards at the prison died and earned the prisoners the ire of the American public, who were following the story on the news, and pressure mounted to end the uprising. The New York State Police were sent in and the shootout (the prisoners had no guns) resulted in 43 dead. It was the deadliest one-day clash on American soil since the U.S. Civil War.

It did not end there as there were plenty of reprisals against the prisoners who did not die and, to hide what actually happened, a cover-up ensued.

The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate and as such the treatment that led to what happened at Attica is no doubt still occurring. Meaning it is surely only a matter of time before history repeats itself. Prisons continue to be populated by Blacks and Latinos and places where brutality and not rehabilitation is the name of the game.

Attica has been looked at as a symbol of rebellion. Being referred to repeatedly in pop culture in television series like Orange Is the New Black and films like Dog Day Afternoon. Yet what happened at Attica over those days seems to have been forgotten. But the inequalities between races still continue. Gordon’s documentary tries to right one of the wrongs. The one concerning the fading of the Attica uprising from the collective memory of Americans. Plus it refers to what is still going on in the country.

The picture of what actually went on over those days and afterward is carefully constructed through surveillance footage, news coverage from the time and many interviews with journalists, prisoners like Carlos Roche, David Brosiq and Arthur Hanson, and other eyewitnesses. Most of it, while illuminating, is distressing to listen to. How the prisoners were not seen or treated like humans.

This is not easy to watch. The horrible treatment, the emotional and psychological scars left on the surviving prisoners and the photos of the bloody bodies after the police raid. No one who lived through this came out unchanged for the worse. And yet the lessons and warnings are ignored…